Chapter 15: War at Sea

Desert Dawn Base Camp, 1 March, C.E. 71

“To a new Desert Dawn,” Sahib Ashman said, raising his glass. Those assembled drank, though Natarle had a small coughing fit.

Alex gazed at the amber liquid in his own glass. Will I ever see a new dawn?

Mu looked at his young friend curiously. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”

Alex shrugged. “Different cultures have different rules, Mu. Besides, I am a Coordinator. My liver is much better at filtering out impurities.” He tossed off his drink, then grimaced. “I don’t like it, though.”

The Hawk grinned. “Never had the urge to drown your sorrows in a strong drink?”

“I have never understood the attraction of deliberately altering one’s own consciousness, and ‘drowning your sorrows,’ as you put it, only makes things worse in the end.” Alex shook his head. “I’ve had enough problems in my life without adding alcoholism into the mix.”

Cagalli laid a hand on his arm, almost…protectively? Mu was not sure. “And getting drunk is inefficient, right?”

Alex did not visibly change expression, but he seemed to relax slightly. “Very,” he said in a deadpan voice. “I can’t be in top form if I’m drunk.”

Yep, Mu thought. She’s sweet on him, and the feeling’s mutual, even if Alex has cold-space lubricants for blood.” I do not think I have ever met a pilot who controls himself the way you do. Are you sure you’re human?”

Alex smiled thinly. “I’ve never denied having feelings, Mu. I just don’t believe in showing them much.”

They were interrupted when Ledonir Kisaka raised a glass. “To a day when Natural and Coordinator can live side by side,” he said, smiling at Kira Yamato and Flay Allster. As Flay was a Natural and Kira a Coordinator, no one doubted the Colonel’s meaning.

“Anyway,” Mu said, “how are you holding up? You fought your cousin again yesterday.”

The youngster twitched slightly. “I can hold on long enough to reach Orb. Then I won’t have to fight him anymore.”

He is hurting, even if he does not show it. “You’re dodging the question, kid. I’m sure you can make it to Orb; that’s not the point.”

Cagalli bristled -making Mu even more certain of her feelings- but Alex held up a hand. “I won’t deny that having to fight Yzak hurts, but you’re making it out to be a larger problem than it is. Neither of us intends to kill the other; even if we were not facing each other in battle, we would still be on opposite sides because of Zala. That is the central difficulty.”

Mu held up his hands. “Okay, okay.”

Sometime later, the guerrillas and people from both ships stood on a hill behind an elder. The old man spoke slowly, reciting the names of every person killed in the conflict between ZAFT and the people of the desert. It was long, too long for some, who broke down in tears.

That is why we must press on, Alex thought. So that the sacrifices of these people will not be in vain. We must stop Zala.

Archangel, Bridge, 3 March, C.E. 71

Two majestic ships, one brilliant white, one space black, crossed out over the Red Sea. With the desert behind them, they were entering a new stage in their journey. Though all concerned (except for Ledonir Kisaka) were happy about the change, they knew it was far from over. Now that they had reached the sea, ZAFT’s submarine forces would be waiting.

“Crossing over the coast now, Captain,” Arnold Neumann reported.

Murrue smiled. “Excellent.” She looked down into CIC. “For the time being, I will allow off-duty personnel out on the upper deck. Please inform the crew.”

There was general cheering at that. They had gotten air aplenty during their time in the desert, but “fresh” was not a word most of them would have used to describe it. Kuzzey Buskirk was relieved; born and raised in Heliopolis, he had not reacted well to the sandstorms.

Natarle keyed her intercom; crossing over the ocean had reminded her of something important. “Chief Murdoch, what’s the status on the sonar unit?”

“The kid’s working on it,” the mechanic replied. “Don’t know when it’ll be ready, though.”

“Tell him to expedite. And Chief,” here the XO’s voice turned uncharacteristically teasing, “I would be careful about calling a superior officer ‘kid’. It could wind up on your record.” Murdoch’s only response was a low groan.

Ledonir Kisaka gazed thoughtfully at a computer map. “The journey will be a difficult one,” he said. “We may have bypassed Gibraltar, but that still leaves Carpentaria all too close to our best course. Somehow, I don’t think ZAFT is going to ignore us.”

And with the two ships over the ocean, that meant submarines. Marco Morassim was known to operate in the Red Sea, and while he was not the best ZAFT had to offer, he was no pushover either. Worse, communication intercepts suggested that Alex’s old nemesis Daniel Bartlett had been transferred to Carpentaria. That was enough to give anyone pause.

“We still have time to relax, though,” Murrue said. “It’s a good thing, too; the battle with Waltfeld took a lot out of everyone.”

Especially Kira and Alex, the latter fighting his own cousin, the former dueling with someone he could have called friend. If anyone needed a rest, it was those two youngsters.

Archangel, upper deck port

Kira tossed his jacket aside and sat heavily on the deck, breathing hard. He had been under a lot of strain lately, both mentally and physically. Andrew Waltfeld had been an exceedingly difficult opponent, but his words were, if possible, worse.

“I have no idea what your reasons are for fighting against your own people. Especially since your best friend is with the Le Creuset team.”

“There’s no other way. I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!”

He shook his head violently. Stop it!

A shadow fell over him. “Kira? Kira, what’s wrong?”

Kira looked up. “Flay? Sorry, I was kind of…” He shrugged helplessly. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

Flay sat down next to him. “Like what?”

He sighed. “You remember what Waltfeld said, about my reasons for fighting against my own people?” She nodded. “Well, I can’t help wondering. What if he was right? What if I am fighting against my own people when I shouldn’t be?”

She snuggled against him. “Don’t worry about that. Alex was right; this is not about fighting your own people. You’re just trying to protect your friends, no matter what their genes look like.”

“I know, but still-“

Flay pressed a finger to his lips, cutting him off. “It’s not your fault, Kira. No one is to blame except Rau Le Creuset. You did what you believed was right; that’s what’s important.”

Kira smiled and kissed her. “Thanks.”

They stayed like that for a while, not saying a word, taking comfort in each other’s presence. Kira, for all his hatred of the events that had brought him into the war, had to admit that it was not all bad. If he had not boarded the Strike, he would never have gotten to know people who were now particularly important to him. Murrue Ramius, who had treated him well despite their initial hostility; Mu La Flaga, who was like an older brother; even Natarle Badgiruel, despite her by-the-book exterior.

He smiled down at the redhead nestled against his side. If I had not gone to war, Flay and I would not be together. That must be worth something.

Two sets of footsteps sounded. “Are we intruding?”

Kira’s smiled widened, and Flay’s face lit up. “Hi Alex, Cagalli. No, you’re not intruding at all.”

“So, what brings you two here?” Flay asked.

Alex moved to stand near the railing, while Cagalli sat on the deck opposite Kira. “Visiting friends, mainly. Even I get lonely on occasion, believe it or not.” All four of them grinned. “Colonel Kisaka is meeting with the officers, trying to decide where we go from here.”

“We’re going to be facing ZAFT submarines sooner or later, right?” Kira said. “That’s why I had to work so hard on that sonar.”

Alex shrugged. “Most likely. Morassim does not worry me, the man’s an incompetent. Unfortunately, we have more than him to deal with.” His lip twisted. “According to some comm intercepts, my old friend,” his voice dripped sarcasm on the last word, “Bartlett was transferred to Carpentaria just after we landed.”

Kira groaned. “No offence, but I’m really glad he’ll be concentrating on you.”

The older pilot chuckled softly. “I don’t blame you at all. Andrew Waltfeld was one thing; he was a professional. He had fun taking you on, but it was never a matter of revenge. Bartlett, on the other hand…” Alex shook his head in disgust. “His facility for carrying a grudge is all but legendary. On the plus side, I can probably exploit that; if he is still mad about that tournament, as seems likely, he won’t be thinking as clearly as he should.”

“Hey, Cagalli,” Flay said suddenly. “What do you think of all this?”

The princess shrugged. “I don’t really like the Earth Forces, except for the people on this ship,” she said. “It was their project that provoked ZAFT into attacking Heliopolis, and I really don’t like how they treat Coordinators.” She smiled at Kira and Alex. “My feelings toward someone aren’t determined by what their genes look like.”

Flay grinned. “Same here.” She rested her head on Kira’s shoulder.

“But I don’t like what ZAFT is doing, either” Cagalli went on. “When it was formed, they actually did some good, but Zala’s been twisting it, even if most ZAFT soldiers don’t know it.”

“Exactly,” Alex said softly. He looked at Kira and Flay. “I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but I was literally on my way to a ZAFT recruiting center when I heard about Zala’s true goals.”

“That’s why I can’t stand what that bastard’s doing,” Cagalli said. “Alex is a patriot, but he can’t help defend his homeland because the head of ZAFT is a lunatic.”

“This is just wrong,” Kira said bitterly. “This war is splitting friends, even families apart.”

Alex sighed. “It isn’t enough to know what you’re fighting for. It is just as important to know what you are fighting against. I don’t think many on either side know what they’re fighting against.”

Flay looked at him. “What are you fighting against?”

“Patrick Zala’s dreams of genocide, and Blue Cosmos,” Alex replied. “And fighting the latter means being against virtually everyone in the Earth Forces, excluding, to my knowledge, only Admiral Halberton and the crew of this ship.”

He shook himself. “But that doesn’t matter right now,” he said, turning to gaze out at the ocean. “We’re out here to relax, so let’s just forget the war, if only for a little while.”

His friends nodded agreement. There was no point in trying to relax if all they were going to do was talk about the course of the war. To be able to perform to the fullest, it was occasionally necessary to forget about it entirely.

Alex sat next to Cagalli, resolutely ignoring the way Kira and Flay exchanged knowing grins. Maybe this war is splitting my family, but I will not let it be permanent. I will find my sister, and once Zala has been stopped, we will finally be able to go home.

Archangel, upper deck starboard

Kira’s friends had gathered on the other deck. The mood was far lighter; none of them had Kira’s deep-seated worries about the war. All they thought about was enjoying the sea breeze. Mir was especially delighted, immediately removing her pink jacket and dashing to the railing.

“Oh, that feels good,” she said, sighing contentedly. “It’s been so long.”

“Yeah,” Tolle agreed, moving to stand next to her. “Heliopolis had some nice spots, but nothing like this.”

Predictably, Kuzzey was less sanguine. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen this much water in one place.”

Tolle glanced over his shoulder. “That’s right, you were born and raised on Heliopolis. Have you ever been to Earth at all?”

“Never.” Kuzzey looked mistrustfully at the water far below them. “I’m getting dizzy.”

Mir grinned mischievously. “And there are monsters deep in the ocean,” she said.

The dark-haired student blanched. “There are?”

“Oh, stop teasing him, Mir,” Tolle said. “Kuzzey, the only monsters in the ocean are ZAFT mobile suits. That’s why Kira had to get that sonar working.”

Sai leaned against the railing. “You’re right, though, Mir. It has been too long. I mean, living in space is nice, but sometimes you just want solid ground under your feet.”

“Don’t let Alex hear you say that” she said. “He doesn’t like being under full gravity.”

Tolle waved a hand dismissively. “That’s because he’s from the PLANTs. He’ll get used to it if he’s going to spend much time in Orb.”

His girlfriend grinned. “I’ll bet he spends a lot of time there, even if he takes out Zala. You’ve seen how he and Cagalli act around each other.”

He laughed. “Remember what Kyle told us last month, about Alex saying that any girl who fell for him should have her head examined?”

“Oh, my!” Mir giggled. “Can you imagine anyone saying that about Cagalli Yula Athha?”

Sai tried. “Not to her face. That’d be suicide.”

Tolle laughed again. He had been around the princess enough to be able to imagine what would happen if anyone tried something like that. She was cheerful enough under normal circumstances, but it was well known that she had a short temper, as well.

The ship’s alarm cut through the laughter, freezing them in place. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue Ramius’ voice said sharply.

The deck was suddenly empty.

Gulf of Aden

“I knew this was going to happen,” Alex muttered, strapping into his machine. “What’s the situation?”

“One submarine carrier, Vosgulov-class,” Cagalli responded; Skygrasper 2 was down for repairs, so she was filling her old role. “Four mobile suits; two AMF-101 DINNs, and what we think are a pair of UMF-4A GhOONs.”

Alex cursed. “Morassim, almost certainly. Fortunately for us, he’s nowhere near as good as Waltfeld or Le Creuset.” He looked at the Scorpion. “Brian, you’re the only one with any real underwater capabilities. Can you handle it?”

“No problem, Alex.” The younger pilot saluted. “Chief Murdoch managed to cobble together a makeshift phonon maser for me. Combine that with the Scorpion’s scale system, and I should be able to take the subs, no sweat.”

“Good.” Alex gripped his control bars. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

Marco Morassim spotted the launch. “So here comes the traitor!” Signaling his partner to deal with Mu’s fighter, he aimed his own machine at the approaching Gundam. “I’ll send you to the bottom of the Gulf!”

“Talk is cheap,” Alex said coldly. “If you think you have a prayer of defeating me, then you’re an even bigger incompetent than I thought.” He leveled his rifle at the DINN.

Morassim may not have been the smartest soldier around, but he was a good enough pilot to dodge Alex’s initial attack. He responded with his rifle and shotgun, trying to wear down the infernal machine’s phase-shift. Alex let him try; Stormbird had the advantage of armor and raw firepower, but a DINN was at least difficult to hit.

Alex’s next shot was a graze, melting some armor off the DINN’s right arm but not doing any major damage. “You’ll have to do better than that, boy!” He lined up for a shot at the Gundam’s optics, then found himself jolted by another beam, this one from below. “What the?”

“He’s not alone!” Kira shouted, beam rifle flashing.

Morassim cursed, dodging again. Even with his DINN’s mobility, he was having a hard time avoiding laser blasts from two different directions. Even worse, both mobile suits had PSA, which none of his weapons could penetrate. It was only a matter of time.

Beneath the waves, Brian Kilgore stared at the Vosgulov through narrowed eyes. The GhOONs had not noticed him yet, which was fine with him. If he could take out the submarine, the mobile suits would be at his mercy. The sooner, the better.

He looked at the readouts for his makeshift weapon. No telling how long it will last. I had better make my shots count. Brian knew it would not take very many hits; neither ZAFT submarines nor the mobile suits they carried were intended to dive more than a hundred meters or so.

Blow one good hole in that Vosgulov, and it crumples like a beer can.

A torpedo flashed past within meters of his cockpit, and he cursed. “The GhOONs. Simply great.” Not that he was very worried; he had just wanted to take out the mothership first.

“So, I kill the suits first instead. Fine.” Brian took careful aim with the maser, targeting the machine that had fired on him. One shot blew it in half.

The other one was on him in an instant, crashing into him. He cursed again; if his PSA went down this far underwater, he was dead. Forcing the GhOON away, he tried to bring his maser to bear, only to have the ZAFT unit vanish.

Brian shrugged it off. The escape was only temporary; once he sank the sub, that GhOON pilot was doomed. Nodding to himself, he brought up the maser again, aiming for the Vosgulov’s center section. Steady…steady…now! He pulled the trigger, wincing at the thought of what was about to happen.

He blinked. While his shot had connected, there had been two explosions, one halfway between the Scorpion and its target. He frowned in puzzlement, and then it hit him. That GhOON must have gotten in the way at the last instant. Confirming his thought, a piece of debris drifted past his suit’s optics, unmistakably the arm of a GhOON.

Brian started his ascent, keying his radio at the same time. “Alex, I’ve taken care of the GhOONs, and that sub. Mission accomplished.”

“Roger that, Brain,” Alex said. “We’ll finish the job.” He glared at the DINN ahead of him. “It’s over, Morassim. You’ve lost.”

“Not yet!” The ZAFT commander hit his thrusters, charging the Stormbird. “I’m taking you with me!”

What does he think he is doing? Alex supposed it was possible Morassim intended to ram him, forcing them both underwater, where neither machine would survive. Not that he intended to allow that to happen. Raising his rifle, he let the oncoming DINN grow in his sights for a few seconds, then fired.

The other DINN exploded at the same time, blown in half by a shot from Mu’s Agni.

“Hey, Alex,” Kira called. “Wasn’t that just a little too easy?”

“We had the advantage of numbers and firepower, Kira,” Alex said. “Besides, as I have said, Morassim was an incompetent. Don’t expect all our battles to be this easy.”

“I know.” Kira knew all too well. He had faced some of the best ZAFT had to offer and had no illusions that the worst was behind him.

Mu’s Skygrasper waggled its wings. “Come on, guys. Let us head back. You can bet we’re not done yet.”

He was right. Marco Morassim was only the beginning. There were other enemies beneath the glittering waves, enemies that would not fall as easily. And one enemy, who would stop at nothing to destroy them. As Alex had said, Daniel Bartlett was legendary for his ability to carry a grudge.

Vosgulov-class submarine carrier Ballard, 4 March, C.E. 71

A blond man in the gray uniform of a ZAFT ship captain scowled at the report. His new commander had predicted Morassim’s defeat, but this went beyond even Bartlett’s expectations. Morassim had been soundly trounced by the legged ship and its midnight-black consort.

He keyed his intercom. “Commander, this is Captain Styles,” he said.

Bartlett’s face appeared on the monitor. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, the Morassim team has been destroyed,” Styles said.

“As expected,” Bartlett said.

“According to our reports, they never even scratched either ship. It was a complete route,” Styles went on. “As far as we know, no survivors.”

Bartlett snorted. “I warned Morassim not to take Strassmeier and Yamato lightly. He chose to disregard that warning and paid with his life. We, of course, will be more circumspect.” He consulted something on his own terminal. “How long until we can intercept those two ships?”

Styles checked with his navigator. “If we get moving immediately, three days, sir.”

“Then do so.” Bartlett smiled thinly. “We will succeed where even Le Creuset and the Tiger failed.”

“As ordered, sir.”

Bartlett’s quarters

So now I get another crack at you, Strassmeier. Do you know I am coming? Probably, I know better than most that one thing you are not is stupid.

Bartlett clenched a fist. He did not want to fight an idiot -what was the fun in that? – but he could have wished Strassmeier was a little less of a warrior. As it was, Strassmeier kept beating him, and making it look easy. There were few things more maddening than competing with someone who was always just a little better.

This time, though…this time I will win. He had been able to bring his personal CGUE with him to Earth, and the techs at Carpentaria had given it even more extensive modifications. It had been fitted with a new, more efficient energy battery, one with four times the capacity of a standard model. In addition, the shield-mounted Gatling gun had been replaced with a mutli-barrel beam gun. As well as one new feature for the main body…

Bartlett sighed. He was painfully aware of his own weaknesses, of the way his facility for carrying a grudge often clouded his thinking. Such tendencies could prove fatal when dealing with someone like Strassmeier, but he just could not help himself.

“Stop it,” he told himself firmly. “Strassmeier is good, but he’s hardly invincible. If you do not stop dwelling on your defeats, you’ll never beat him.”

The problem was that he would not be facing the Stormbird alone. If he were to attack Strassmeier, it would also mean fighting the Strike, and while Bartlett was nearly the former’s equal, he did not even approach Kira Yamato’s skill.

Valkyrie, Bridge, 5 March, C.E. 71

Kisaka found that he was grateful for the tabletop display Lia and Alex had insisted on when their ship was built. It showed far more detail than the small screen on the Archangel, and it also had much greater image clarity. Not to mention larger maps.

“Almost home,” Cagalli said softly.

Kisaka glanced at his charge. “You sound disappointed.”

Cagalli jumped; she had not realized she had spoken aloud. “A little. You know how much I hate being a princess.”

The big Colonel smiled. “I don’t think you have much to worry about. Your friend Strassmeier seldom appears to remember your status, and I think it unlikely that your father would separate you.” Not with the connections that young man must Orb.

Of course, hard though Alex was to read, Kisaka could tell that he did not even know those connections existed. That could make their arrival…interesting.

The bridge hatch slid open, and Alex stepped through, accompanied by Mu La Flaga and both Captains Ramius. “As you’ve seen, our ship is only partly based on stolen blueprints,” the Coordinator was saying. “We didn’t have much trouble getting the parts we needed.” He frowned. “In fact, they seemed to keep appearing at precisely the right time.”

“Quite a coincidence,” Mu observed. “You ever figure it out?”

“I never did,” Lia said. “What about you, Alex?”

“My theory is that someone in Orb, probably highly placed, got wind of what we were up to, and approved of it.”

If you only knew, Kisaka thought, hiding a smile at the thought, and the way Cagalli’s face lit up when she saw Alex.

“So, Colonel,” Alex said. “How do you think Lord Uzumi will react when he finds out his daughter spent the past two months on an armed-to-the-teeth warship that answers to no one?”

Kisaka smiled wryly. “He probably won’t be pleased with Cagalli; our headstrong princess has a history of this sort of thing.” Cagalli gave her bodyguard a half-angry look. “I think, however, that he will be grateful to you for keeping her alive through all this.”

“Even though she flew in combat on two separate occasions?”

“She does have military training,” the Colonel pointed out. “Such experience could prove beneficial later.”

“That’s good to hear,” Alex said with a nod. “Despite our initial clashes,” he and Cagalli exchanged slightly sheepish grins, “I consider her a close friend, and I do not say that lightly.” He met the Colonel’s gaze. “I hope Lord Uzumi won’t object to that.” His tone was mild, but at the same time challenging.

On the contrary, it will almost certainly make things much easier. “You have nothing to worry about, Commander. Nor does your friend Kira.”

Alex nodded again. “I’ll make sure to tell him. It’s not the first time he’s befriended someone highborn -his best friend is Patrick Zala’s son- but it will still be a relief, I think.”

“I’m sure.” As it happened, Kisaka knew more about Kira than Kira himself did, and while he had meant it when he said the Strike pilot had nothing to worry about, it would still be complicated. Especially since Cagalli had mentioned Alex’s little quest.

Lord Uzumi will have to make the final decision, but even if he continues as he has thus far, it will only delay the inevitable. Alex is no fool; he will learn the truth sooner or later.

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Alex said. “Getting to Orb will be tricky; the best course will take us closer to Carpentaria than I’m comfortable with, but I don’t see an alternative. Murrue?”

She nodded unhappily. “I agree. It’s fortunate that both of our ships are well defended.”

“That’s an understatement, ma’am,” Valkyrie’s comm officer put in. He indicated his board. “According to communications intercepts, Le Creuset’s G-pilots have reassembled at Gibraltar.”

Mu and Alex swore simultaneously, the former because of the trouble those pilots routinely caused, the latter because it meant he would fight his cousin yet again.

“This’ll be fun,” Alex muttered. “We haven’t fought all four Gundams since the Eighth Fleet was destroyed. And since only three of our machines can fly in atmosphere…”

“We won’t be able to fight them on even terms,” Mu said in disgust.

“That depends on how good they are in this environment,” Murrue pointed out. “You fought against Elsman and your cousin during the Talbadiya battle, Alex. What was your assessment?”

Alex rubbed his chin. “I only really confronted Yzak, but I can say that he was out of his depth. In fairness to him, it was his first planet-side battle. Most likely, Dearka was the same.”

“What about the other two?” Kisaka asked.

The Coordinator snorted. “Nicol had never been on-planet in his life before this operation. I doubt Athrun had been, either.”

Murrue shook her head. “I asked Kira about that. He says Athrun has never been on-planet before.”

“Which means that we’ll have at least some advantage until they’ve had a chance to work up,” Alex said. He tapped the screen. “It should be a while before we have to face them; there’s no way they can attack us now, so they’ll probably transfer to Carpentaria.”

“Makes sense,” Mu agreed. “It’s their only stronghold that’s anywhere near Alaska.”

Unfortunately, as they all knew, it was highly likely that they would face other attacks before Athrun, and his comrades became a problem. Marco Morassim had been defeated, but he was far from the only submariner in their path.

Gibraltar Base, 6 March, C.E. 71

For the first time in nearly a month, all four ZAFT Gundam pilots were once again gathered. Considering the nature of their mission, Rau Le Creuset had assigned them to a submarine carrier, the Cousteau, and placed Athrun in command. As Alex had surmised, the newly formed Zala team would soon be transferred to Carpentaria.

Predictably, Yzak was not pleased with the new arrangements.

“Why would Commander Le Creuset put Athrun in charge?” he grumbled. “Urgh! ‘Commander Zala,’ humiliating.”

“No use getting upset about it,” Dearka said, walking beside him. “Obviously, they think he’s cool under pressure. He has even made reports to the Council. But you know when he is out on the battlefield, he tends to be careless.”

Yzak stopped, glaring at his friend. “What are you trying to say, Dearka?”

“If anything goes wrong, it’s his responsibility.” Dearka looked back at Yzak. “It’s a Commander’s fault if he can’t control his subordinates.”

Yzak’s lip curled in a snarl. “Don’t be vulgar.” He stalked away.

Athrun watched the two pilots from an upper window, his emotions decidedly mixed. He was honored that Commander Le Creuset had picked him for command, but he could have wished for a different mission. Fighting against the legged ship meant another encounter with Kira’s X105 Strike.

“Athrun?” Nicol had come up behind him while he brooded. “You, okay?”

The Aegis’s pilot shook himself. “Yeah. I am just envying Yzak, I guess. The closer those ships get to Orb, the less likely it is he will have to fight his cousin again. I’m not so lucky.”

Nicol laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. He knew what Athrun meant; even if the Valkyrie stopped at Orb, the Archangel would continue to Alaska. “Look at it this way. All we must do is take out the legged ship’s engines, then run the Strike out of power. With four of us, we can do it.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Nicol suppressed a sigh. Athrun had been growing increasingly depressed since Heliopolis, and the Blitz’s pilot was starting to worry. No one could blame Athrun for not wanting to fight his best friend, but he could not let that paralyze him. They had more enemies than just the Strike, after all.

“Don’t worry, Nicol,” Athrun said, as if he had been reading the other’s mind. “I know we’ve got to do it, even if it means I have to fight Kira. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“You’d be crazy if you did,” Nicol said with a smile. He turned to look out at the bay. “Even though it is for war, I’m glad I came to Earth. There’s just something about it…”

Athrun smiled back, grateful for the change of subject. “I know what you mean. The PLANTs are beautiful, but they can’t compare to Earth.”

“Do you know anything about Orb?”

“Kira’s originally from a small town on Izanagi Island,” Athrun said. “He didn’t live there long -he was about six when we first met- but he spent some time there on school breaks, while I was in the PLANTs.” He smiled again, wistfully. “I promised him that I’d see it for myself someday.”

“Then you’d better make sure you take him alive,” Nicol said. “Then you can do it together when the war’s over.”

Athrun nodded. “You’re right. Thanks, Nicol.”

“What are friends for?” the other responded, grinning.

Indian Ocean, 7 March, C.E. 71

They had reached the Indian Ocean by the time the inevitable next ZAFT team found them. Unlike Morassim, though, their current opponent was no pushover. Even without the Ballard’s unique acoustical signature, the blood red CGUE told them who they were fighting.

“What is it with that guy and red mobile suits?” Mu wondered, gripping his Skygraspers control stick.

Alex snorted, keeping a wary eye on the CGUE. “He fancies himself a latter-day Manfred von Richtofen,” he said. A dry chuckle. “What he does not know is that while the Red Baron was an excellent marksman, he was an average pilot at best. Crashed several times, in fact.”

“And average is one thing this guy isn’t,” Kira put in. “Miriallia, what do we have coming besides that CGUE?”

“Five GINNs, all of them on Guuls,” Mir replied. “The same number of DINNs, and sonar detects at least two GhOONs and a ZnO.”

“Thirteen mobile suits?” Natarle said incredulously. “Isn’t that a bit much for a single Vosgulov?”

Alex frowned. “You’re right, Lieutenant. He must have help.”

“That’s affirmative,” Lia chimed in. “We’re detecting another sub, same class.”

“Wonderful.” Alex did not know how Bartlett had gotten another submarine assigned to his team, but it did not really matter.

Another voice broke in. “Hello, Strassmeier,” Bartlett himself said. “Ready for another round?”

“Do you think this is some kind of schoolyard squabble?” Cagalli snapped from the other Skygrasper. “Is that all the war is to you?”

The ZAFT pilot looked at her fighter with sudden interest. “Remarkably young for a fighter pilot, aren’t you? From the sound of your voice, you cannot be much older than sixteen or seventeen. I wasn’t aware the Earth Forces employed child soldiers.” He indicated the Strike with his beam rifle. “Except for traitors, like him.”

“You bastard!” Cagalli shouted. “Don’t you dare call him that!” Only the knowledge that her fighter was doomed if she charged kept her from doing just that.

“Calm down, Cagalli,” Alex said, then turned back to his old nemesis. “Bartlett, Kira Yamato is an Orb national who enlisted in order to protect his friends.” He smiled thinly. “He’s also a better pilot than you could ever hope to be, and the Strike has the advantage in atmosphere.”

“Perhaps he has more mobility,” Bartlett conceded. “But it remains to be seen what he can do with it.” As he spoke, the other airborne mobile suits assumed a formation around him. “Enough talk. Have at you, Strassmeier!”

His subordinates ignored Alex completely; Bartlett had given orders that Alex was to be left to him. Two DINNs went for the Skygraspers, forcing Mu and Cagalli to break in opposite directions. The remaining DINNs and three of the GINNs focused on the Strike; thus, unknown to them, sealing their own fates. The last two GINNs, equipped with the same sort of weapons the Le Creuset team had used at Heliopolis, dove at the Archangel.

“Just the two of us, now, Strassmeier,” Bartlett taunted. “This is our last battle.”

Alex’s cold blue eyes narrowed. “For once, I agree with you, but I will not be the one to fall today.” He raised his rifle.

Bartlett smiled. “Go ahead. It won’t do you any good.”

We will see about that. Alex squeezed the trigger, the brilliant green beam struck the CGUE’s hatch…and splashed against it, leaving the mobile suit unharmed. “What the-!”

Chapter 14: The Tiger’s Last Stand

Land Battleship Lesseps, 26 February, C.E. 71

Andrew Waltfeld stared at the report in disgust. His request for additional BuCUEs had been denied. Instead, he was forced to make do with obsolete TAF-2 ZuOOTs. Well, ZuOOTs and a pair loaned from the Le Creuset team. Not that the Tiger was happy with that; Yzak Joule and Dearka Elsman had zero terrestrial combat experience, and he had never liked Rau Le Creuset in any case.

“What is with those guys in Gibraltar, anyway?” he demanded of his aide. “Why are they sending us ZuOOTs? Are they all out of BuCUEs?”

DaCosta shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Maybe they think they are doing us a favor, sending us those two.” He nodded at the transport outside, where the Duel and the Buster were being unloaded.

Waltfeld snorted. “The pilots’ battle experience is limited to space.”

“They are from an elite unit…”

“I don’t like the fact that they’re part of the Le Creuset team. I could never stand that guy.” The commander gazed thoughtfully at the Duel. “There’s one silver lining, though…”

DaCosta frowned. “Sir?”

“I promised Strassmeier that I’d pass on a message to his cousin,” Waltfeld explained. “He said he wants a chance to talk before everything goes nuts. And if anyone can get that kid to see reason, it’s Yzak Joule.” He stood. “Well, let’s go greet our new teammates.”

Yzak stepped off the transport with Dearka, assessing the welcoming committee through narrowed eyes. Andrew Waltfeld was easy to spot; as ZAFT’s most famous ground commander, his face was in the news frequently. Flanking him were a red-haired man in standard green and a woman in a blue jumpsuit.

“Welcome to the desert,” Waltfeld said. “I’m Andrew Waltfeld. This is Aisha, and my XO, Martin DaCosta.”

Yzak came to attention and saluted; it was always a good idea to make a good impression on a new commander, even if the assignment was temporary. “Yzak Joule, of the Le Creuset team.”

Dearka followed suit. “Dearka Elsman, also of the Le Creuset team.”

Waltfeld returned the salutes. Then his eyes narrowed slightly, as he inspected Yzak’s face. “You know, when someone doesn’t have a scar removed, it’s usually taken as a sign of determination,” he said. A thin smile crossed his face. “Or is it…humiliation?”

The Duel’s pilot struggled to control his temper. What is it to him? he thought irritably. Still, better to not shoot his mouth off. There was no telling how the Tiger would react.

Waltfeld stepped back, apparently satisfied. “We’ll be moving in two days. Oh, and Joule.” He pulled a disc out of his pocket. “Your cousin asked me to pass on a message.”

Yzak felt a jolt. “What kind of message?” he asked carefully.

“He wants to meet with you face to face, before everything goes crazy again.” Waltfeld handed him the disc. “This contains the location of the meeting site he suggested. It’s on some pretty rocky terrain, so you don’t have to worry about your machine sinking.”

Yzak stared at the disc without really seeing it. “Can you get a signal through to the black ship?”

“Easily.”

“Then tell Alex…that I’ll see him.” He looked off into the desert. “Maybe…I can make him see reason.”

Waltfeld nodded. “That’s what I’m hoping for. It’d be nice to only have to fight one ship.”

Neither of them was optimistic, though. Alex had, if anything, become even more convinced that Zala had to be stopped. It was unlikely that even Yzak Joule could convince him otherwise. No, they would most likely have to fight both ships once again, and no one expected that to be easy.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

“All right,” Alex said. He clicked off the intercom, then sat heavily in his chair. “So it begins.”

Cagalli looked at him. “What is it?”

“Yzak has agreed to a meeting,” Alex said. “Tomorrow, on an outcropping southeast of here.”

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “That’s good. Maybe you can get through to him.”

The Coordinator snorted. “He’s probably thinking the same about me, and we’re both almost certainly hoping in vain. No, it’ll be good to see him, but it won’t change anything.” His words were almost toneless, but those who really knew him could discern the pain in his voice.

Maybe it will not change anything, but at least he will be able to see his cousin again, Cagalli thought. She herself had few living relatives; the only ones she saw very much were her father and an uncle.

“Should I go with you?” she asked softly.

Alex shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, but no. It will just be Yzak and me; I trust Waltfeld enough to know that ZAFT will not interfere. Unlike Rau Le Creuset, he’s a man of his word.” He sipped from a mug at his elbow; the same coffee brew the Tiger had served, from the smell of it. “I’ll be fine.”

Cagalli reluctantly nodded. Much as she hated to admit it, Alex was right about Waltfeld. Ruthless though he might be, the Tiger never broke his word. If he said ZAFT would not interfere, then ZAFT would not interfere. Any soldiers foolish enough to disobey would be in for a rude awakening.

“Well, I’d better get down to the hangar,” Alex said, standing. “The last thing I need is for the Stormbird to fail on me.” He left; the hatch sliding shut behind him.

The princess slowly got to her feet. Moving with a vague idea of visiting the Archangel, she stopped when the picture over Alex’s bunk caught her eye. She had noticed the resemblance between Alex and Yzak before, but something else had just struck her. Yzak’s white hair and hotheaded nature, Alex’s black hair and cold personality.

They are like day and night. Yzak looks bright, and his anger is as hot as the sun. Alex is dark, and as cold as space itself. Cagalli was not sure why she was suddenly thinking in verse, but it seemed to fit. Day and night, different yet inseparable.

She hoped it would be more than just words.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

“I’m against it,” Natarle said flatly. “Going alone to meet with a member of the Le Creuset team…”

Mu rolled his eyes. “Are you thinking Alex is going to betray us?”

The lieutenant shook her head. “No, he’s finally convinced me that he can be trusted. My concern is that his intent could put him in danger.”

Mu snorted. “In danger from who? Even if he is a hothead, there’s no way this Joule kid is going to attack his own cousin.”

“I think Natarle is worried that the Tiger might set a trap,” Murrue said. “Is that it?”

Natarle nodded. “Exactly. As has been pointed out numerous times, Andrew Waltfeld is to ground operations what Rau Le Creuset is to space. How do we know he won’t simply kill Strassmeier?”

“Because he’s a man of his word, Lieutenant,” Mu said. “I’ve studied his record, or what we know of it, anyway. If he says Alex will be safe, he means it.”

“Commander La Flaga is right,” Murrue said. “In any case, we do not have any authority in this matter. If Alex wants to go meet with his cousin, that is his choice, and his alone.”

Much as Natarle hated to admit it, the captain was right. Strassmeier was an ally, but not a member of the military. He had a right to conduct operations as he saw fit; if that meant going off on his own, so be it.

“Very well,” she said at last. “I withdraw my objections. Not that they would have done any good,” she added wryly. Natarle shrugged, then stood. “If you’ll excuse me, Captain.”

“She’s sure turned around,” Mu commented when the XO had left. “Thought Alex couldn’t be trusted, and now she’s concerned for his welfare.”

Murrue chuckled. “I don’t think Natarle actually likes him, but that seems to be just a clash of personalities. They don’t have to like each other to be able to work together.”

From what Mu had seen, it was more a clash of wills than of personalities; had circumstances been different, Alex Strassmeier and Natarle Badgiruel could have been the best of friends. It was their differing views on the war that made them battle; Natarle was a loyal Earth Forces officer, and Alex, his hatred for Zala aside, passionately supported the cause of ZAFT and the PLANTs. Neither of them blamed the other for their attitudes, of course.

“You know,” Murrue said, “I actually hope Le Creuset’s G-pilots survive. At the very least, I’d like to meet Kira’s friend without us trying to kill each other.”

“I hear that,” the Hawk agreed. “Those four are a lot better than most ZAFT types; Alex tells me they’re all redcoats. Not just anyone gets to wear the red uniform.”

That was an understatement. While there were undoubtedly more of them than the Earth Forces knew about, they had been able to positively ID exactly six: Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, Athrun Zala, Shiho Hahnenfuss, and Troy Cadwallader. Four of them were with the Le Creuset team, and the other two had recently vanished from the battlefront with no explanation.

While it was true that the enemy Gundam pilots were all sons of Supreme Council members, not even the most extreme Coordinator-hater accused ZAFT of nepotism. If they were not the best, they would not be wearing the red uniform, pure and simple.

“Well,” Murrue said at last, “we can’t really do anything for the next two days. Maybe Alex will have good news.”

Not that she was getting her hopes up.

Libyan desert, 27 February, C.E. 71

Two mobile suits stood facing each other on a rocky outcropping. One belonged to ZAFT, Yzak Joule’s GAT-X102 Duel, its assault shroud making it look like an armored knight. The other was an independent, Alex Strassmeier’s winged MBF-X108 Stormbird.

Neither pilot was in a flight suit; as this was to be a meeting, not a battle, such garb was pointless in atmosphere. Alex wore his usual black outfit, his heirloom Luger holstered at his right thigh. Yzak stood a mere five meters away, resplendent in his red uniform.

Day and night, Mom always called us, Alex thought. I never realized just how apt the comparison was.

Yzak was having similar thoughts, seeing in his mind’s eye an image of Alex in the same uniform he himself wore. He should be in ZAFT red, not that black suit. Sure, that looks good on him, but this is not how things were supposed to be!

Alex spoke first. “Hi, Yzak,” he said, managing a smile. “How’s Cassandra?”

At least he was starting with something innocuous. “She’s fine. Still cannot figure out why she cannot talk, though.” Yzak sighed. “She misses you, Alex.”

His cousin snorted at that. “Cassandra’s what, five? I’m amazed she even remembers I exist.” Alex shook his head. “No matter.” He eyed Yzak’s face. “I see you have a bit of a souvenir.”

Yzak flushed. “Your buddy Yamato gave me this,” he snarled. “He’ll pay.”

Alex stifled a sigh. “You brought it on yourself, Yzak.”

“Alex-“

“I warned you not to underestimate Kira,” Alex said icily. “You chose to ignore that warning and paid for it. Be thankful; if Kira hadn’t promised me, he wouldn’t kill you, you would be dead.”

Yzak laughed harshly. “Come on. I’ll take him down next time.”

“Unlikely. Kira is out of your league.” The statement was flat.

The Duel’s pilot glared at his cousin. “That’s crazy. How can he possibly be better than me?”

“Because I have reason to believe that Kira Yamato is in fact the Ultimate Coordinator!” Alex took a step forward. “I can think of no other way for him to learn mobile suit combat so fast despite never having been within shouting distance of such a machine in his life. The only G-pilot who would have any real chance of defeating him is Athrun Zala, and even that is doubtful.”

Yzak shook his head violently. “If Yamato really is the Ultimate Coordinator, why does he stay with the Earth Forces? You know as well as I do what they’re like.”

“As Kira has told Athrun at least once, possibly more, the men and women on the Archangel are very different from the rest of the Earth Forces.” Alex waved his prosthetic hand. “There’s also the fact that he still has friends on that ship. And one other, a girl he loves very deeply, and would give his life to protect.”

Commander Waltfeld had mentioned her, a redhead named Flay Allster. “Fine, forget Yamato,” Yzak said. “What about you? What are you doing fighting us?”

A derisive snort. “You actually had to ask that?” Alex laughed harshly. “Leaving aside my feelings about Patrick Zala, the fact that Rau Le Creuset attacked Heliopolis without provocation is enough for me to fight him. I swore that day that he would pay for the colony’s collapse.”

“If those Orb bastards hadn’t been building mobile suits for the Earth Forces, it wouldn’t have happened,” Yzak shot back. “We positively I.D.’d an Orb noble there.”

Another snort. “Contrary to Le Creuset’s paranoid fantasies, the presence of Rondo Ghina Sahaku constitutes irrefutable evidence of the exact opposite.” Alex nodded significantly at the Duel. “The odds of Uzumi Nara Athha cooperating with the Sahakus on anything, much less something of this magnitude, rank somewhere below the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell. What Le Creuset did, in my opinion, amounted to outright piracy.”

“Piracy?” Yzak felt himself gape, his face turning bright red. “Are you out of your mind?”

“I should ask you that, after what you did in the Eighth Fleet battle.”

Yzak closed his mouth, glaring even harder. “You mean where you stopped me from blowing away a troop transport?” he demanded.

“I stopped you from committing murder,” Alex said, his voice abruptly harsh. “Those weren’t soldiers, Yzak. Kira found a damaged life pod in the ruins of Heliopolis. Knowing that life support would have given out before rescue could have arrived, he brought it onboard. Except for Flay Allster, who enlisted at the last moment, all of them were on the shuttle you almost destroyed. Two of them are Coordinators.”

Yzak dropped his gaze, stunned. He had no choice but to believe; he knew Alex would never lie to him. “I didn’t know.” His head came up. “What about the princess?”

Alex did not even twitch. “Princess?”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Alex.” Yzak’s voice, though still heated, was nowhere near as strident. “Dearka intercepted some transmissions, and I.D.’d her with a voiceprint analysis. What is the Chief Representative’s daughter doing on your ship?”

His hawk-faced cousin was silent for several moments. “Cagalli came to Heliopolis after hearing rumors that Orb was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces,” Alex said at last. “Kira and I tried to get her to a shelter when you attacked, but the only one within reach was full. At that point, I brought her aboard the Valkyrie to keep her safe; the last thing I needed was to antagonize Orb’s Chief Representative.”

“Anyway, we didn’t hit it off at first.” Alex chuckled. “As a matter of fact, she thought I was a ZAFT spy. It was only after I read her the riot act that she was disabused of that notion.”

Despite the situation, Yzak could not help laughing at the image; he knew better than most how difficult it was to get Alex to lose his temper, and how nasty it could get when it did happen.

Then he noticed something else in Alex’s voice. “You like her, don’t you.”?

Alex shrugged. “Certainly. Our initial differences aside, we’ve actually become close friends.”

Yzak grinned slyly. “That’s not what I meant.”

Alex started to ask what Yzak did mean, then stopped and narrowed his eyes. “Really. For your information, cousin mine, there is nothing romantic about our relationship. Nothing whatsoever. We trust each other, which I will grant is a rare thing for me, but you know as well as I do that close friendships can be forged very quickly under the right circumstances.”

“Whatever.” Yzak shrugged. “We’ll keep it quiet; no reason to make things worse.”

Alex nodded. “That’s something, at least.” He sighed and turned away. “In any case, I can’t stay here any longer. In less than twenty-four hours there is going to be a major battle, and I have no doubt both of us will be in the thick of it.”

Yzak felt tears sting his eyes, his momentary levity gone. “Alex, please, it’s not too late,” he said in a pleading tone he would never have let his teammates hear. “You can still come back. Forget those Earth Forces bastards and come with us. Come home.”

Alex did not turn. “I’m sorry, Yzak. So long as Patrick Zala holds any position of power, the PLANTs are closed to me.” He reached for his zip line.

Yzak stood there for a long time after the Stormbird left, struggling with a mixture of rage and grief. No matter what he did, his beloved cousin was still committed to his insane course. Nothing seemed to reach him, not even the knowledge of what that Earth Forces officer had done with Lacus Clyne.

Alex, why? Why are you so sure Committee Chairman Zala wants to kill all the Naturals? Why do you insist on helping that Earth Forces ship? Why do you keep fighting me?

He was starting to fear that he would never know.

Archangel, Bridge, 28 February, C.E. 71

It was time. This day would define the desert war, whether ZAFT or the Earth Forces would triumph. Either the two ships and their Desert Dawn allies would escape, or Andrew Waltfeld would destroy them. Victory and life, or defeat and death, those were the choices they faced.

At Sahib Ashman’s suggestion, they had opted to make their stand in the Talbadiya factory district. It was by then uninhabited, so there was no danger of collateral damage. Archangel and Valkyrie were well-armed, and their mobile suit force would have the assistance of a minefield, which was expected to deal with any careless BuCUEs.

“So that’s the plan,” Murrue said. “Alex?”

“The Skygraspers will give us an additional advantage,” Alex said. “In addition to mounting the Sword Striker pack, Cagalli will be carrying spare power charges for the Scorpion and the Stormbird. Our other machines will be drawing power directly from the Valkyrie’s main reactor.”

Sahib nodded. “And your friend Kilgore won’t need a recharge for quite a while, since you’ll have him hidden in the sand until the time is right.”

“Exactly.” Alex nodded back. “I will keep the Duel busy; Yzak has no intention of killing me, but the Stormbird’s mobility advantage is such that even his disabling shots won’t even come close. The Buster will be a danger mainly to the ships; it doesn’t have enough mobility to threaten our suits and fighters.”

“I agree,” Natarle said. “It will be difficult, but we should be able to pull through.”

Cafeteria

Kira slumped in his chair, uninterested in his food. He knew he had to eat, but he had no appetite. Images kept whirling through his mind, friends, enemies, enemies who used to be friends, enemies who under other circumstances would have been friends. Alex Strassmeier, Flay Allster, Rau Le Creuset, Athrun Zala, Nicol Amalfi, Andrew Waltfeld, the list was seemingly endless.

“Hey.” Mu La Flaga set another plate in front of him. “Eat up. Those go great with yogurt sauce.” He blinked when Kira flinched. “You, okay?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Kira shook himself. “It’s just that, the Tiger said the same thing, it goes great with yogurt sauce.”

Mu raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? The man knows his food.” He laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Listen, forget about him. When you are fighting for your life against someone you know personally, it’s that much harder.”

“But I…”

“I’m not saying you should forget about Athrun,” Mu said. “You can’t expect someone to throw away a lifetime of friendship at the drop of a hat. Besides, it’s not like you’ll be fighting him here.”

He is right about that. “What about Alex’s cousin?”

Mu laughed. “Joule’s good, but he’s no match for Alex, at least not on Earth. The Duel was unsuited for this sort of combat even in its original form, let alone with that assault shroud attached. While he is taking potshots, Alex is going to fly rings around him in the Stormbird.”

Kira sighed. “I get what you’re saying. It’s just that…Waltfeld seemed like such a nice guy, even when he was pointing a gun at us.”

“He’s the sort of ZAFT soldier I could like,” Mu conceded. “Still-“

He was cut off by an alarm. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue’s voice said. “The Waltfeld team has spotted the minefield. This will be difficult, but we can do it.”

“That’s our cue,” Mu said. “Let’s go.”

Skies over the Desert

It was a bizarre setting for a battle. On one side were the three land battleships of the Waltfeld team, along with many BuCUEs and ZuOOTs, the Duel and the Buster, and dozens of Agile helicopters. Facing them were the Archangel, the Valkyrie, six mobile suits (only two of them airborne), two Skygraspers, and the Desert Dawn’s jeeps and artillery trucks.

Between the two forces was what was left of the Talbadiya factory district. Theoretically, the ZAFT forces had the advantage with their land battleships and BuCUEs. Unfortunately for them, no one had told Murrue and Lia Ramius, who were quite prepared to use their ships’ superior firepower.

This is it. Alex keyed his radio. “Here we go, guys. Kyle, Chris, Hiro, provide fire support from the deck. Brian, you stay hidden as planned.” He looked at the Skygrasper pacing him. “You ready, Cagalli?”

The princess gave him a thumbs-up. “You got it.”

“Here they come,” Kira said suddenly.

“Roger that.” Much as he hated to leave Kira out there alone, Alex had a different task here: keep the Duel and the Buster busy. Hitting his thrusters, he dove at the Lesseps, his beam rifle blinking all the way. The ZAFT warship was well-armored enough that his shots did little damage, but it was enough to get their attention.

The Strike, meanwhile, concentrated on the BuCUEs. Kira knew from experience that the Aile pack gave him a major advantage -BuCUEs could jump, but not actually fly- and he was making the most of it. A ZAFT mobile suit was foolish enough to jump right into his sights; he squeezed the trigger once, and the BuCUE exploded.

Several helicopters tried to swarm him, but he ignored them. They were no real threat, and soon they were less than that, as Mu’s Skygrasper flashed past, the Agni hyper-impulse cannon spitting crimson energy blasts. Three Agiles simply vanished, and their comrades fell to an almost contemptuous burst from the Strike’s CIWS.

This is too easy, Kira thought. Even with the Duel and the Buster, they cannot do much to us. What is going on?

His thoughts chopped off when Mu sped past again, drilling a hole through a ZuOOT. “Watch yourself, kid. There’s still a lot more coming!”

Kira shook himself. “Roger that.” Even as he swung the Strike around, looking for his next target, Andrew Waltfeld’s words echoed in his mind.

“So how do you determine the winners and losers? When every single one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Back over the Lesseps, Alex was giving his cousin fits, just as Mu had predicted. Every time Yzak took aim, the Stormbird was somewhere else by the time he pulled the trigger. Laser blasts, railgun slugs, missile salvos, all were dodged with little effort.

“It would seem that terrestrial warfare doesn’t suit you, Yzak,” Alex commented, immolating a turret with his rifle.

Yzak’s face contorted in a snarl. “Shut up!” He launched another futile missile attack. “I’ll drag you back to the PLANTs if I have to!”

“An exercise in futility.” A radar antenna melted under the Stormbird’s fire. “It is highly unlikely that you can defeat both of our ships.”

“Says who?” Shifting his aim for a moment, Yzak blasted a Desert Dawn jeep unfortunate enough to stray into his sights.

Alex sadly shook his head. “A waste of energy. Those jeeps don’t mean much.”

Thus far, it was best described as a stalemate. None of the ships on either side had moved far from their initial positions, and the mobile suit battle was at this point indecisive. That would soon change, however; both Andrew Waltfeld and Alex Strassmeier were planning their own surprises.

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Set Lokies to anti-air,” Lia Ramius snapped. “Don’t let those Agiles get through!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Lia knew her ship had gotten lucky so far. If they got within range of any of the ZAFT ships, that would quickly change…but the same held true for the enemy. The Valkyrie outgunned any land battleship ever built; and such vessel that strayed within range of its main guns would have a quick and exciting life.

She looked down into CIC. “How long until we enter firing range of the ZAFT ships?”

A radar operator studied his displays for a moment, then shook his head helplessly. “Impossible to tell, ma’am. All this sand is messing up the scanners.”

That was what she expected. “Aunt Murrue, what about you?”

“We’re moving, slowly but surely,” the elder Ramius replied, grimacing as another hit shook her own ship. “Give us-” She broke off as the Archangel ground to a halt.

“What was that?” Natarle demanded from the other ship’s CIC.

Arnold Neumann snarled in frustration. “We’ve struck sandbank! We’re trapped!”

Murrue cursed. “It’s up to you, Lia. We can’t do anything unless we can get free.”

“I understand.” Lia found herself briefly wishing they dared use the Parsifals in atmosphere, then dismissed the thought. “Target Gottfrieds at that fuel station,” she ordered. “It’ll hurt ZAFT a lot more than us.” A beat. Then, “Fire!”

Four argent beams of green light lanced out, striking the fuel station dead on. It exploded in a giant fireball, spewing debris everywhere. A single BuCUE, unfortunate enough to be caught within the blast radius, was sent flying. It landed hard, then exploded.

“Two more BuCUEs incoming!” the tracking officer snapped. “They’re launching missiles!”

“Evade!” Lia barked.

Valkyrie’s maneuver allowed them to escape almost completely unscathed. One missile did connect, but it did minor damage, and the BuCUEs did not have another chance. GAT-X105 Strike appeared from above, its beam rifle catching both ZAFT machines off guard.

“You guys all right?” Kira called.

Lia smiled. “We’re fine, Kira. Thanks.”

“No problem.” The Strike pulled away in search of other targets.

Skies over the desert

It was still more or less a stalemate outside. Waltfeld’s BuCUEs had not been able to close with the ships, aside from the two Kira had destroyed, but the allies had not been able to push them back, either.

Kira had spotted the Archangel’s plight and was trying to assist, but a double flash of green cut him off. “What the?”

An evil-looking yellow machine had joined the party. “Hey there, hotshot,” Andrew Waltfeld said. “You gotta fight me first.”

Kira swallowed hard. There was no mistaking that voice, or the TMF/A-803 LaGOWE he piloted. “That’s no BuCUE.” He was in for the fight of his life, against his most dangerous opponent to date; Athrun Zala might have been better, but he had never intended to kill Kira.

The new battle did not go unnoticed. Alex and Yzak stopped exchanging laser bolts for a moment, fascinated by the confrontation.

“You might as well give up now, Alex,” Yzak said. “You and Yamato are both almost out of power, and there’s no way he’s taking out Waltfeld’s LaGOWE like that.”

Alex started to reply, paused to vaporize a ZuOOT, then shook his head. “You’re underestimating him again, Yzak. Not only is Kira the Ultimate Coordinator, but he also has the SEED.”

Yzak fired his rifle, cursing as the Stormbird’s shield absorbed the blast. “What?”

“Superior Evolutionary Element Destined Factor,” Alex explained. “Someone who has the SEED can go far beyond his normal abilities. I too have that power.” He gave his cousin an almost mocking look. “It is that power that gave you your little facial blemish.”

The other Coordinator felt his face heat at the mention of his scar. “So that SEED makes him better than me?”

“No, he’s already better than you are. The SEED just compounds that.” Alex blasted another ZuOOT. “As for the energy problem… Cagalli, now!”

“On my way!” The princess’s Skygrasper swooped in, dropping a peculiar cartridge into the Stormbird’s free hand. Apparently not satisfied with that, Cagalli deployed the Panzer Eisen grappler, latched onto the ZAFT warship, and sliced through two turrets with the Schwerht Gewehr. “Take that!”

Yzak frowned, not sure what had just happened, then cursed in shock as the Stormbird body checked his Duel, knocking him off the ship entirely.

“See how you handle the sand!” Alex called, his machine already shrinking in the distance.

Yzak swore repeatedly, trying in vain to get the Duel to move. What is going on here? I cannot move! He tried jumping, only to sink again when he landed. Swearing again, he pounded his controls in frustration, then glared at the retreating Stormbird. “It’s not over, Alex,” he whispered.

By then, the only major fight left was Kira’s duel with Waltfeld. The second half of Alex’s surprise had appeared, in the form of Brian Kilgore’s MBF-X304 Scorpion. He had made short work of the remaining BuCUEs, then tricked Dearka into freeing the Archangel with a shotgun blast.

Kira fired repeatedly, cursing as the infernally fast LaGOWE dodged his attacks. He is even faster than a BuCUE. “This is crazy!”

“I think someone’s going to run out of power soon,” Waltfeld said, grinning. He knew Cagalli would not be able to recharge the Strike; the sort of melee they were in precluded it.

“You’ve already lost the battle!” Kira shouted. As if to emphasize his point, the escort ship Henry Carter exploded under combined fire from the Archangel and the Valkyrie.

“Like I said, there are no clear rules for ending a war like this.” Waltfeld fired again, this time hitting the Strike’s beam rifle.

Kira swore, taking cover behind his shield as the weapon exploded. With his rifle gone, he drew a saber, sidestepping and slashing one of the LaGOWE’s wings off. Waltfeld skidded to a halt, then came around for another pass.

“Don’t do it!” Kira shouted desperately.

“I am not done with you yet, kid!”

Kira jumped and slashed again, this time destroying the ZAFT machine’s right foreleg. “It’s over, Waltfeld! Surrender!”

In the skies near their two motherships, Alex, Cagalli, and Mu watched the fight. Waltfeld had ordered a retreat, so even the Duel and the Buster had stopped firing (not that they were able to fight in any case). With them gone, the three pilots found themselves mesmerized by the unfolding drama between Waltfeld’s LaGOWE and Kira’s Strike Gundam.

“Shouldn’t we help Kira?” Cagalli asked nervously.

Mu shook his head. “If we tried to interfere in that melee, we’d risk hitting Kira instead of Waltfeld.”

“But-“

“Mu’s right, Cagalli,” Alex said. “There’s nothing we can do.” For some odd reason, he found himself wishing he could touch her, give the kind of reassurance mere words could not. He shook it off. “Kira can take care of himself.”

She reluctantly nodded. “You’re right.”

Kira jumped away from the LaGOWE yet again, slicing off its beam cannon. “Why keep this up? You’ve lost, and you know it!”

“Maybe I’ve lost, but so have you,” Waltfeld responded.

Kira started to speak, then looked down at his panel as an alarm blared. “No-!”

“There’s no other way,” Waltfeld said softly. “I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!” He lunged at the Strike one last time, the double beam saber leading…

And behind Kira’s eyes, an amethyst seed burst.

Discarding the now-useless Aile pack, Kira drew an Armor Schneider and charged to meet the LaGOWE. He stabbed down into the enemy machine’s neck, and then both mobile suits were blown backwards. The Strike landed on its posterior in a sand dune. The LaGOWE was not so fortunate.

Aisha unstrapped from her forward gunner’s position. “Andy!” The Tiger pulled her close…

The LaGOWE exploded, spewing shrapnel everywhere, peppering the Strike. Kira, breathing heavily, stared at the conflagration in horror. “I…I…” He felt tears streaming down his face. “It didn’t have to end like this!”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex sighed, closing the file. “So much for the Desert Tiger. Gone, just like that.” He clenched his fists, cursing in German under his breath. “I am so tired of this.” He leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes.

Cagalli laid a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all, right?”

“Of course not. Why would I be?” Alex shot back, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s easy to see what’s eating you.” He looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “Since we were fighting the Duel out there, it’s obvious that Yzak didn’t listen to you.”

“All too true.” Alex grimaced. “Oh, I’m fairly sure I convinced him about Kira’s motives, but he’s still determined to bring Kira down. He also didn’t believe me when I insisted the Orb government wasn’t involved in the G-weapon project.”

Cagalli snorted derisively. “As if my father would work with the Sahakus on anything.”

“That’s more or less what I said.” Alex laughed softly, but there was no humor in it. “He also knows who you are.”

The princess’s eyes widened. “What? How?”

“The pilot of the Buster, Dearka Elsman, intercepted some transmissions between us, and ran a voiceprint analysis.” Alex wanted to kick himself. “Luckily, they have no intention of telling their superiors; he said they don’t want to make things worse.” He snorted. “He’s also starting to sound like Mu.”

Cagalli had no trouble figuring that one out. “He thinks we’re together?”

“Or that we’re headed that way, at least.” Alex rolled his eyes. “I have no idea what put that notion in his head, but it doesn’t really matter.”

“Did he say anything else?”

Alex sighed, closing his eyes again. “At the end, just as I was leaving, Yzak begged me to come home to the PLANTs. I’ve never heard him talk like that before.” He stood and moved to the window, gazing sightlessly out at the desert. “I replied that so long as Patrick Zala holds any position of power, the PLANTs are closed to me.”

Cagalli joined him at the window, not saying anything.

“Is this all there is?” The Coordinator’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “Is there no turning back? I have killed so many ZAFT soldiers since we left Heliopolis, I have fought against my own cousin so many times. I’ve sided with an Earth Forces warship.” He leaned his forehead against the glass. “Will I… will I ever be able to go home?”

She touched his arm. “Don’t worry about it. Keep up what you are doing, and everything will work out. I saw the look on Waltfeld’s face when you told him about Zala’s goals. If you can make the Desert Tiger think, then you still have a chance. It’ll take a while, but don’t give up.”

He looked down at her. “You’ve sure changed. Back at Heliopolis you thought I was a spy, and now you’re trying to cheer me up.”

“Hey, I didn’t know you then.” Cagalli smiled. “In the meantime, you’ll be welcome in Orb. I’ll make sure of that.”

Alex smiled back. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

He would indeed be welcome in the Orb Union, more than even Cagalli realized. Alex had a gift for anticipating others’ next moves, enemy, and ally both, but he had no idea what would happen when they neared Orb. The events immediately preceding their arrival would change his life forever…

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira tossed aside his uniform jacket and collapsed on his bunk, even more exhausted than Alex was. Going one on one with the Desert Tiger piloting a BuCUE was bad enough, taking on Waltfeld’s LaGOWE had been his biggest challenge yet.

“There’s no other way. I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!”

He moaned softly, hearing that voice in his mind. It was unlikely that he would ever forget Waltfeld’s last words, spoken just before the Strike’s knife stabbed into the LaGOWE. And then the explosion, marking the final resting place of two brave people. There probably was not enough left to bury.

Why? Why does this keep happening? Why do I have to keep killing? Kira rolled over, burying his face in the pillow.

The hatch slid open, and Flay Allster stepped in. She was worried; Kira had not even tried to talk to her after the battle, and that was, to put it mildly, unusual. “Kira?” When the Coordinator did not respond, she moved closer to the bunk. “Kira, what’s wrong?”

He finally stirred. “I… I am so tired of this. All I wanted was to live in peace, but I cannot. I have to fight, or people I care about are going to die.” Kira half rose, slamming a fist into his pillow. “But to protect them, I must fight other friends, or people who might have been friends. Athrun, Nicol, Waltfeld…” He choked, unable to go on.

Flay sat on the bunk and gently embraced him. “It’ll be all right, Kira,” she whispered. “We’re going to make it, no matter what. We’ll put an end to this, and you won’t have to fight them anymore.”

Kira looked up, eyes glittering with unshed tears. “Flay…”

She caressed his cheek. “Let it flow, Kira. I’ll be here, no matter what.”

Kira gave in at last, sobbing quietly, while Flay cradled him, not saying a word. No words were necessary, not now. It was painful, but at the same time a relief. When the time came to fight once more, Kira would be ready.

Chapter 13: Waltfeld

Valkyrie, cafeteria, 18 February, C.E. 71

Kyle Perry leaned back in his chair, looking out at the stretch of sand. “Four days since landing, and already things have gone crazy.”

Hiro Nakamura snorted. “We’re up against Andrew Waltfeld himself. What did you expect, a tea party?” He sipped from a cup of, fittingly, tea. “From what I’ve heard, he’s even better than Rau Le Creuset.”

“Hiro’s right,” Brian Kilgore said from his seat near the counter. “Waltfeld isn’t as ruthless, but he’s a lot more devious. We’re in for the fight of our lives.”

“At least you and Alex can fight at all,” Chris Madsen said sourly. He waved at Kyle and Hiro. “The three of us aren’t much more than armored gun turrets in the desert. Our machines don’t have any mobility worth talking about in this environment.”

Kyle sighed. “I hate to say it, but I agree with you, Chris. There just isn’t much we can do here.”

Much as they wanted to, no one could disagree. If they were in the desert, the Devastator, Shinobi, and Inferno Gundams were of limited use. Unlike the Stormbird, Scorpion, and Kira’s Strike, they could not fly, and while OS modifications would allow them to run in sand, they would be hopelessly outmatched by BuCUEs (or worse yet, Waltfeld’s LaGOWE).

“Say,” Chris said, changing the subject. “How long do you think it’ll be before Alex admits he’s in love with the princess?”

“Won’t happen,” Brian said. “You know him. He keeps everything inside except with a select few.”

“And Cagalli happens to be one of those few,” Chris pointed out.

Hiro looked at the Devastator’s pilot. “What do you think?”

Kyle did not answer at first. “I think Chris is right,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t have said that a month ago, but now…” He waved a hand. “Frankly, I think it’s a good thing. You all know what Alex has been going through.” His companions nodded. “He needs someone who can keep him going, and Cagalli is the only one who can really do that. Sure, he and Lia have been friends for a long time, but it’s not the same.”

“It’s strange, though,” Hiro murmured. “Alex is cold as ice most of the time, whereas Cagalli is more like Yzak Joule, except that she’s not arrogant. Hard to imagine those two together.”

Kyle shrugged. “Opposites attract, Hiro, you know that.”

“So how long will it be?” Chris asked again.

“I give it a month. Maybe two.” Kyle grinned. “I can’t wait to see how the higher-ups in Orb react. I don’t think her father would mind, and the Sahakus would probably swallow their pride, since Alex is related to Ezalia Joule, but some of the others won’t be so sanguine.”

“Like the Seirans,” Lia Ramius said as she stepped through the hatch. “Especially the Seirans; Cagalli used to be engaged to Yuuna Roma.”

Brian looked at her in surprise. “That creep? Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes. She told me herself.” Lia raised an eyebrow. “What, you know the guy?”

The young pilot grimaced. “I saw him at a diplomatic function in Aprilius a month before the war broke out. My dad’s an aide to Representative Canaver, so I got dragged along.”

“What did you think of him?” Hiro asked.

“He’s an arrogant, slimy, smarmy, worthless, lying, incompetent, bigoted fool,” Brian said, an uncharacteristic edge of contempt in his voice.

Hiro chuckled appreciatively. “That’s what I thought.” He looked at Lia. “Where’s Alex?”

She smiled. “In his quarters, talking to Cagalli.”

Chris grinned. “Bingo.”

Alex’s quarters

Despite Chris Madsen’s innuendos, there was nothing romantic going on. Alex and Cagalli had simply settled into a routine in the weeks since Heliopolis. They had lunched together frequently, true; Lia had said that it only made sense for the princess to take some of her meals with what passed for the ranking officer. Alex, for his part, was starting to suspect she had an ulterior motive.

Not that he cared. He was happy to give Cagalli a chance to relax, and it was a relief to have someone to talk to occasionally. This time, they had somehow wound up talking about Alex’s family history.

“We’ve been able to trace the family at least as far back as World War II,” he said, sipping his coffee. “An ancestor of mine was a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, Oberleutnant -that’s First Lieutenant- Heinrich Strassmeier. He was no Nazi, mind you; there actually weren’t very many Nazis in the military.”

Cagalli leaned forward, fascinated almost despite herself. “Did he survive the war?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Alex grinned. “He actually became close friends with a British pilot; Sergeant Michael Rork, I think the name was. They shot each other down repeatedly over the course of four years, starting at the Battle of Britain.”

The princess shook her head. “Kind of weird, shooting each other down so many times, and when the war ends suddenly, they’re friends.”

“It’s not as weird as you might think,” Alex said. “Frequently, warriors on all sides of any given conflict have a lot in common. Oh,” he waved a hand, “there are exceptions. A large number, possibly a majority, of Earth Forces soldiers are Blue Cosmos sympathizers.”

Cagalli frowned. “Come on. Do you really think most of the Earth Forces like people getting blown up?”

Alex shrugged. “Maybe sympathizers isn’t the right word. Most Earth Forces soldiers don’t support blowing people up at random, which is essentially what Blue Cosmos does, but they do share the idea that Coordinators are a disease.”

Having met some Earth Forces diplomats -primarily from the Atlantic Federation- she had to agree. “The people on the Archangel are too good for the Earth Forces.”

“I agree. Leaving aside the fact that Murrue Ramius is Lia’s aunt, that crew is definitely not typical Earth Forces.” Alex stood and opened his cabinet. He drew out an ancient-looking auto pistol. “On a more pragmatic note, Murrue has asked me to help with a supply run in a couple of days.”

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. “A supply run. Where?”

“Banadiya.” Alex chuckled at her expression. “Yes, Waltfeld has his headquarters there. Unfortunately, it is also the only settlement within a hundred kilometers that could charitably be called ‘civilized,’ which means it’s the only place our Desert Dawn friends can get better equipment.”

She winced. He had a point. “Anyone besides you?”

“Colonel Kisaka is going to meet with some arms dealer,” Alex said. “Kira and Flay are also going, mainly to get those two off the ship for a while; believe me, they need it. Lieutenant Badgiruel will supervise the initial steps, and Ensign Neumann will be driving.” He tucked the gun under his jacket. “I was wondering if you’d like to come, too.”

Cagalli thought for a moment, then grinned. “Sure, why not. It’ll be fun.” Another thought struck her. “But what about you? Waltfeld met you before, so wouldn’t it be dangerous?”

“Andrew Waltfeld has no intention of killing me; I realized that in the last battle. Probably because of my aunt.” He chuckled. “This will be worth it just to see Natarle Badgiruel out of uniform.”

The princess could not help laughing. Badgiruel was so by-the-book that it was hard to imagine her in anything remotely resembling a relaxed situation.

There was, of course, a certain amount of risk. Alex himself might be safe, but there was no guarantee that Waltfeld would be so gracious with the others if they were caught.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

Murrue dashed her signature at the end of the last report and sat back, closing her eyes. Even in the middle of nowhere, the paperwork never seemed to end; she was fortunate to have an exec like Natarle to carry the load. The younger woman (who was rumored to share Alex’s obsession with efficiency) made the Archangel run like clockwork, leaving Murrue mostly free to consider their next move.

The hatch slid open. “You wanted to see me, ma’am?” Natarle said.

Murrue sat up. “Yes, I did. Have a seat.” She waited until Natarle had complied before continuing. “First, do you have a team set up for the supply run?”

Natarle nodded. “Colonel Kisaka and Mister Ashman will meet with an arms dealer in Banadiya. Meanwhile, Ensign Yamato, Crewman Allster, Commander Strassmeier, and the princess will have a look around the town itself, getting some much-needed rest in the process.”

The Captain raised an eyebrow. “Much-needed?”

“They’ve all been on edge since we left Heliopolis, Ensign Yamato especially,” Natarle explained. “Leaving aside the fact that his best friend is with the Le Creuset team, we have gotten this far largely through his efforts. With all due respect for Commander La Flaga, we could not have survived without the Strike. True, the Valkyrie was with us, but you know as well as I do that, they have their own agenda.”

Murrue nodded. “We’re fortunate that the agenda doesn’t mean fighting us; I highly doubt we would have survived otherwise. It seems unlikely that Kira could have taken five G-weapons on his own. He’s good, but not that good.”

“I agree.” Natarle smiled wryly. “It’s lucky for us that your niece is close to Commander Strassmeier. In any case, he volunteered in part because he knows his own limitations.”

“In other words, Alex wants to get a better feel for the local environment. Makes sense.” Murrue frowned. “One thing, though. Alex has met Waltfeld before. What if they run into each other again?”

Natarle shrugged. “As Strassmeier himself pointed out, they only met once, and briefly. It’s entirely possible that Waltfeld won’t recognize him.”

“Perhaps. Still, Alex showed me a picture of his family, and I can tell you that his resemblance to Yzak Joule is uncanny. I would not be at all surprised if he were recognized through that alone.” Murrue sighed, shaking her head. “If Alex says he can handle it, then he can handle it. He can take care of himself.”

That was true enough. Natarle knew from personal experience that Alex Strassmeier was an extremely dangerous adversary. A crack shot with most weapons and a martial arts expert, he would be more than enough to deal with any sticky situations.

Natarle stood. “Is there anything else?”

“No.” Murrue smiled. “Thank you. Dismissed.”

“Ma’am.” The XO saluted and left.

Murrue leaned back in her chair again. Unless she was greatly mistaken, Natarle’s attitude toward Alex had changed for the better since they had landed. The by-the-book exec still did not like the youngster, but it appeared that she no longer distrusted him.

It was, Murrue decided, a good thing.

Gibraltar Base

This is boring, Yzak thought. We have been sitting here for days. When are they going to turn us loose? He slammed a fist onto the table in front of him. The Duel and the Buster had been repaired in less than a day, despite the local mechanics’ lack of experience with the ex-Alliance machines. Yzak and Dearka were ready, so why hadn’t anything happened?

Footsteps sounded behind him. “Got some news,” Dearka said, coming around and sitting across from Yzak. “Commander Bartlett just landed at Carpentaria.”

Yzak frowned. “Carpentaria? What for? He’s spent the war in space, just like us.”

“He’s had some training in submarine ops,” Dearka reminded him. “They’re putting him in command of the Ballard, something about a new operation.” He shrugged. “I don’t really care; it keeps him away from us, at least.”

The scarred pilot had to agree. There were not many people in ZAFT that he genuinely hated, but Daniel Bartlett was at the top of that short list. Anything that kept that idiot as far away as possible was something Yzak was in favor of.

Bartlett, of course, was not the only problem. “What about the legged ship?”

“They’re in the desert, in the Waltfeld team’s area of operations, or so I hear.” Dearka snorted. “Rumor has it that we might be loaned out to the Tiger; those two ships beat him twice, so he might need some heavier firepower.”

Yzak grimaced. He wanted to take down the legged ship, but fighting them meant fighting Alex, which was something he desperately wanted to avoid.

Dearka noticed his friend’s sudden brooding. “Hey, Yzak, forget about the black ship.”

“How can I when they insist on sticking with the legged ship?” Yzak shot back.

The Buster’s pilot waved a hand. “Everything we’ve heard suggests that they’re headed for Orb; if we can take out the legged ship, your cousin and his friends should stop bothering us.”

That made sense. Alex’s one connection to the Earth Forces was the Archangel; if that ship were destroyed, there was every reason to believe that he would simply resume his journey to Orb. It was not the best outcome -Yzak desperately wanted his cousin to return to the PLANTs- but it was the most likely.

“You’re right,” he said at last. “I won’t fight Alex unless he comes for me. I’ll concentrate on the legged ship…and the Strike.”

Of course, he probably will come for me, Yzak added silently. If he is so determined to protect the legged ship, then there is no way he had just let us sink them.

“Say,” Dearka said suddenly. “Has your cousin been to Orb before?”

Yzak thought back. “Yeah, about four years ago. He was at a reception of some sort. Why?”

Dearka reached into his red coat and pulled out a computer disc. “I intercepted some transmissions between your cousin and his ship up in orbit.” He plugged the disc into a laptop he had brought along. “Wait till you see who he’s talking to.”

Yzak watched the recording, not sure what his teammate was getting at. Alex was talking to an unfamiliar blond-haired girl. There was obviously a rapport between them; Yzak knew Alex well enough to see that. It was strong, too; Alex was showing more emotion than was normal with someone outside his own family.

He looked up when it ended. “Some girls? So what?”

“She’s not just ‘some girl,’ Yzak.” Dearka pocketed the disc. “I got curious, so I ran a voiceprint analysis. That’s Chief Representative Athha’s daughter.”

Yzak sat bolt upright. “Are you serious? What would someone like that be doing on Alex’s ship?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” the other said. “Obviously, you know your cousin a lot better than I do; I’ve met him maybe twice. Why would he have the Chief Representative’s daughter be on his ship?”

Yzak wracked his brain. There was a certain logic to the situation; Alex had made no secret of his belief that Orb was the only sane nation on Earth. What that did not explain was how Cagalli Yula Athha could have gotten on the black ship.

Unless… “Maybe she was at Heliopolis. Alex recognized her and got her aboard his ship when everything went to pieces.”

“Even if she was there, why would she have escaped on the black ship instead of an Orb ship?” Dearka was more than a little skeptical. “With her connections, it wouldn’t be too hard; she is a princess, after all.”

Yzak through up his hands. “How should I know?” He shook his head. “Just as well that the black ship is not a priority target, though. The last thing we need is to kill the Chief Representative’s daughter.”

“Tell me about it,” Dearka agreed. “They were screaming after Heliopolis; if we off their princess, they’d get mad enough to declare war, and we’d be toast.”

All too true. Their failure to duplicate the Alliance’s Phase-shift aside, it was well known that Orb had better technology then either ZAFT or the Earth Forces. If the Orb Union were to enter the war as anything other than an ally of ZAFT, the PLANTs were finished.

“So, what do we do?” Dearka asked.

Yzak sighed. “We keep quiet. I do not like it, but it is not like this is going to hurt ZAFT any. I’ll talk to Alex about its next chance I get.” That there would be such a chance, he had no doubt.

“Okay,” Dearka agreed. “I don’t like it either, but you’re right.”

Banadiya, African Community, 20 February, C.E. 71

A slightly overloaded jeep came to a stop just inside the city. Even though the driver and passengers were a rather mixed group, no one gave them a second glance. This was very much desired by all concerned.

“Good luck, all of you,” Natarle said. Though she tried to hide it, she was acutely uncomfortable out of uniform. “We’ll see you later.”

Four youngsters stepped out, and the jeep sped off, presumably heading for a meeting with an arms dealer. Only two of them, Kira Yamato and Flay Allster, were military, and neither was in uniform. Kira wore a blue outfit borrowed from his friend Tolle Koenig and Flay was in the same pink dress she had worn when Kira retrieved her life pod at Heliopolis.

The other two were more ambiguous. While Cagalli held rank in the Orb military, she was seldom seen in uniform; for this trip, she wore her usual khaki pants and red t-shirt. Alex, for once, had discarded his usual black outfit in favor of tan pants and a light blue shirt.

“Pretty dusty,” Flay remarked, stifling a sneeze.

Alex barely twitched. “It’s a desert, Flay. What did you expect?” His voice held no condemnation, however, and Flay did not take offense. “If you can stop yourself from sneezing, you should be able to have a little fun.”

The redhead punched his shoulder lightly, something she would not have dared do a month earlier. “What do you know about fun?” she asked in a teasing voice.

He smiled. “I’ll grant that my idea of fun is probably very different from yours, but I do know how to enjoy myself.”

“I know. I’m just teasing.” Listening to her words, one would find it hard to believe that Flay had once been afraid of Alex.

“We should probably split up,” Alex said. “We don’t look suspicious, but best not to take chances.”

“Colonel Kisaka told me about a restaurant not too far from here,” Kira said. “Why don’t we meet there later?”

Alex nodded. “Good idea. Don’t go too far, though; we need to be able to support each other if necessary.”

Flay waved, then tugged at her boyfriend’s arm, dragging him to the nearest shop; she knew perfectly well that it was unlikely she would be able to find anything of interest, but it never hurt to look. Kira went along, feeling out of his depth; his experience at shopping was limited to computer supply stores and an occasional grocery run.

It would have amused him to learn that Alex was having similar problems. He had gone shopping before, true, but he had never had any real enthusiasm for it. He preferred to practice martial arts or spend time on a firing range. Wandering around a bazaar looking for who-knows-what was not his area of expertise.

Cagalli smiled, noticing his discomfort. Finally, she had found a situation where she was more comfortable than he was. Not that she wanted to drive her cold-blooded friend insane; she simply owed him for all the times he had unnerved her.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” Alex muttered, a barely discernable sour note in his otherwise toneless voice.

Cagalli looked at him with an innocent expression that fooled neither of them. “What makes you say that?”

“Don’t play innocent with me,” he grumbled. “I haven’t stayed alive this long without being able to read people, and one thing you aren’t good at is concealing your emotions.”

She laughed. “Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never gone shopping before.”

“Of course, I have. That does not mean I like it, and I don’t.” Alex suppressed a grimace. “Andrea, on the other hand, loves it; the one thing I’m dreading after I find her is what will happen if -when- she meets Flay.”

That will be fun, Cagalli thought. One thing she remembered about Alex’s sister was that the girl was perky beyond belief. Combining that with someone like Flay Allster was a recipe for weirdness.

She started to say as much, then froze at Alex’s expression. “What is it?”

He nodded at two men across the street. “See those guys?”

Cagalli felt her eyes narrow. She knew by how the men moved what Alex was talking about. “They’re military.” Now that she knew what to look for, she spotted several more. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. It’s not that surprising that Waltfeld would have some of his people out in civilian clothes.” Alex frowned. “The question is, why?”

“Do you think he knows we’re here?”

Alex shook his head. “The Tiger isn’t omniscient. Oh, it is possible that he is onto us, but it is not likely. No, I’d say that whatever ZAFT is up to right now, it has nothing to do with us.”

Cagalli grimaced. “So, we just keep acting normal, and hope Kira and Flay do the same.”

“Right. Unlike me, neither of them has the look of a soldier.”

As it happened, Kira and Flay had no idea that anything was amiss. The two of them chatted happily, just like a young couple out on a date. Kira especially enjoyed it; it was his first chance to just let go since he had found himself in the cockpit of the Strike almost a month before.

Flay had not found anything she cared about, not that she had expected to. Still, the day was not a total loss; she got to enjoy Kira’s company outside the confines of the Archangel. The ship was more comfortable than most such vessels, partly because they were so shorthanded, but it was still nice to get out in the open air for a change.

“It’s been so long,” Kira murmured. “I don’t think I’ve been on-planet more than three times since we moved to Heliopolis.”

“You were born in Orb, right?” Flay asked.

Kira nodded. “It’s been a while, though. I spent more time in Copernicus, with Athrun.” He suppressed the twinge that name produced. “Then we moved to Heliopolis, after things started to edge towards war.” He checked the bag he was carrying, making sure he had not lost anything.

Flay smiled. “Haven’t you ever shopped before?”

“Sure, I have. Athrun and I spent a lot of time in electronics shops, looking for stuff to use in our projects. He was hardware, I was software.” Kira smiled wistfully. “I miss those days.”

Talking about someone like Athrun Zala while in ZAFT territory might have seemed dumb, but Kira’s friendship with the Aegis’s pilot was not that well known.

Flay kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll both make it, and you’ll meet again as friends. Remember that.”

Having finished with their shopping, the two youngsters headed for the restaurant Kira had mentioned earlier. They found a table with four chairs and sat; Kira paid for the whole thing, explaining that he and Flay were waiting for a couple of friends.

Those friends joined them half an hour later. A waiter appeared as if by magic, asking what they would like. Kira and Cagalli both ordered kebabs and juice, Flay chose an exotic-looking salad dish, while Alex ordered (predictably, for those who knew him) seafood.

“How did they find something like that around here?” Flay wondered, looking at Alex’s plate.

Alex swallowed. “Modern transportation, Flay.” He indicated his lunch, a hammerhead shark, of all things. “Besides, we’re not all that far from the Mediterranean.” He took a sip of coffee. “Sharks are also found in fresh water, believe it or not.”

“He’s got a point,” Cagalli said. She chewed thoughtfully on a kebab. “This is really good.”

Kira agreed. Not normally an adventurous eater, he had found the local cuisine very much to his liking. “It’s a nice change.”

“Enjoy it while you can, Kira,” Alex said, lowering his voice. “I’ve spotted several ZAFT soldiers in civilian clothes.”

Flay barely kept herself from jumping in fright. “Are you sure they’re military?”

“Positive. Soldiers have awfully specific mannerisms that are exceedingly difficult to disguise.” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know why Waltfeld would have his people out and about like that, but the fact of it remains.”

They quieted for a while after that. It was unlikely that ZAFT was onto them in any case; four teenagers in a restaurant were hardly recognizable as Earth Forces (especially since only two of them were in the military to begin with). No, it was more likely that Waltfeld had something else on his mind.

And then a voice spoke behind Kira. “Excuse me,” the tall, brown-haired stranger said. “I couldn’t help noticing what you ordered. As it happens, kebabs go great with yogurt sauce.”

Cagalli promptly started arguing with the newcomer, insisting he was dead wrong. Alex, however, was not listening; he had gotten a good look at the stranger’s face, and his blood ran cold. Of all the things he had thought could go wrong, the idea of coming face to face with Andrew Waltfeld had never occurred to him, and he cursed himself for the slip.

Flay looked at him, concerned. “Are you okay?”

The Coordinator hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m fine,” he forced himself to say. “It remains to be seen for how long, though.”

“Don’t worry,” the Desert Tiger said. “I’m not after you right now…Strassmeier.”

Alex let out a resigned sigh. “You knew who I was right away, didn’t you, Commander?”

Waltfeld grinned. “I never forget a face, Strassmeier. We only met once, but you stuck in my mind.”

The other three looked at each other, then at Alex. ” ‘Commander?’ ” Kira repeated carefully. “Alex?”

Alex sighed again. “Kira, Flay, Cagalli, this is Commander Andrew Waltfeld, the Desert Tiger.” Knowing that their number was up, he decided he might as well lay it all out. “Commander, my friend Cagalli Yula -she’s a civilian I rescued at Heliopolis- and two members of the Archangel’s crew, Ensign Kira Yamato, and Crewman Second Class Flay Allster.”

Cagalli gaped. “He’s…the Desert Tiger?”

“That’s what they call me,” Waltfeld said cheerfully. “Don’t worry; like I told Strassmeier, I’m not after you today.”

Alex snorted. “Then why do you have a bunch of guys out here in civilian clothes?” he asked pointedly. “Don’t bother denying it; I know soldiers when I see them.”

“I’ve got other prey on my mind right now. You’ll find out soon enough.” Waltfeld looked at Kira. “Besides, I was hoping I’d be able to meet you.”

Kira met his gaze, wishing he had Alex’s poker face. “Why would you want to meet me?”

“You gave me quite a fight a few days ago,” the Tiger said. “I wanted to see the man behind the machine. Not to mention,” he looked back at Alex, “I wanted to find out what’s going through his head.”

Alex gazed at him coldly. “This is hardly the time or place, Commander,” he said, his voice even colder than his expression.

Waltfeld was unruffled. “True enough, but we’ll have a chance to talk later. In fact, I don’t think you kids will have any problem with what I have in mind.”

“Why should we believe you?” Cagalli spat.

The Tiger shrugged. “I don’t expect you to-” He broke off, gazing at the rooftops through suddenly narrowed eyes. “It’s about to start.”

None of the youngsters had to ask what he meant; without warning, a rocket arced out from a concealed position. Kira, reacting on instinct, tackled Cagalli, upsetting their table and dousing her in sauce. Flay collapsed on top of them, while Alex, cool as ever, drew his peculiar auto pistol.

“Always prepared, eh Strassmeier?” Waltfeld asked, crouching behind the upended table.

Alex ignored him, sighting along the barrel of his weapon. The moment one of the attackers appeared in his sights, he squeezed the trigger. His opponent fell dead, a struck between the eyes by the nine-millimeter round.

“Who are they?” Flay asked plaintively. “Why are they attacking us?”

Waltfeld grunted, spraying another gunman with his machine pistol. “They’re Blue Cosmos,” he said, jamming a fresh magazine in. “I had people out here so I could take them out. Didn’t expect it to happen like this, though.”

No kidding, Alex thought, cursing as his gun jammed. Unfortunately, his weapon of choice was notorious for that. He holstered the gun, then twitched his right arm, causing the knife compartment to spring open. Another twitch of the arm, and a knife appeared in a terrorist’s throat.

“You’ll pay for that!”

Alex whirled, just in time to stop another thug from taking him unawares. A vicious chop to the throat ended that problem, and a bone-shattering punch with his right hand disposed of another. At almost the same moment, Kira took a flying leap, driving his foot into an enemy’s chin. There was a sickening crunch as the man’s neck broke.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

Andrew Waltfeld got to his feet, brushing himself off. “That went well, even if it wasn’t what I’d expected.”

A red-haired man in ZAFT green appeared. “Commander, are you all, right?” he asked, saluting.

Waltfeld smiled. “I’m fine, DaCosta. They took us by surprise, but we handled them.” He nodded at Kira and Alex. “These guys helped out, too.”

DaCosta looked them over. He recognized Alex instantly; his resemblance to Yzak Joule was truly uncanny. Given that, it was obvious that his companions were connected to the Archangel. The two girls did not seem like much, but the brown-haired young man standing protectively over them was something else. From the way he moved, he was almost certainly a Coordinator.

“You’re right,” Waltfeld said, seeming to read DaCosta’s mind. “He’s a Coordinator. And not just any Coordinator, either. He’s the pilot of the Strike.”

DaCosta’s eyes widened. “Sir? Are you sure about this?”

The Tiger smiled. “It’s fine. Like I was telling them, they’re not today’s prey.” He looked back at the youngsters. “Why don’t you come to my place, get yourselves cleaned up.”

Cagalli glared. “Why should we trust you? You know who we are if you think we’re going to-“

“Don’t worry about it.” Waltfeld waved a hand. “You especially need to get cleaned up, and your Coordinator friends helped out in that little skirmish. I owe you for that.”

Alex laid a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine. Andrew Waltfeld is ruthless in battle, but he never breaks his word.”

She nodded reluctantly. “All right.”

Andrew Waltfeld’s headquarters

“Well, well, well.” A dark-haired woman greeted the small group as the entered the mansion Waltfeld used as his HQ. “So, this is the guy you’ve been talking about?” She nodded at Kira.

Waltfeld grinned. “That’s him, Aisha. The pilot of the Strike. Doesn’t look like much, does he?” He gestured at Cagalli and Flay. “Why don’t you get them cleaned up. I’ll take care of the other two.”

“Right. Come on.” Aisha smiled at the girls. “Nothing to worry about.” They reluctantly followed.

Alex and Kira trailed their host into a large office. It was sparsely furnished; Waltfeld apparently did not care for excessive decoration. There was a desk with two chairs, one behind and one in front, a small couch, and a large stone object on a table near one wall. Alex recognized it as a replica of Evidence Zero One, the artifact George Glenn had brought from the outer system. He had seen the far larger original before.

Kira had not seen it in person, but there were plenty of pictures. “Is that…?”

Waltfeld nodded. “Evidence Zero One,” he confirmed. “Not the original, of course; that’s an awful lot bigger. Right, Strassmeier?”

“I’ve seen it before,” Alex acknowledged. “I’ve been to Aprilius One several times, after all.” He and Kira accepted mugs of coffee from the Tiger. “Never paid much attention, though,” he added, sipping from his mug.

Kira did not know much about it; he had never been extremely interested in giant space fossils. He sipped his own coffee in silence.

“I have no idea why they call this thing a Whalestone,” Waltfeld said, sitting behind his desk. “Doesn’t look much like a whale to me.” He shrugged. “You might say that thing is the root of this whole conflict.”

Kira looked over at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Waltfeld nodded at the replica. “It was George Glenn’s revelations that started the whole Coordinator boom. And that was what turned the environmental group Blue Cosmos into a full-blown terrorist organization.”

“Leading to the Mandelbrot Incident, the Copernicus bombing, and Junius Seven,” Alex said tonelessly. “I will never understand how preventing the genetic enhancement of humans is supposed to protect the environment. Particularly since we are so well suited for life in space, where there is no environment save that which we create.”

Their host snorted. “Since when are terrorists rational?” he asked rhetorically. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what they do.”

“All too true,” Alex admitted.

The door opened, and Aisha stepped through. “They’re ready,” she said.

Kira felt himself gaping. His girlfriend was dressed in an evening gown of the same color as her hair. She…she is…Kira forced his mouth closed. He had always thought Flay was beautiful, but this was far beyond anything he had ever imagined.

For his part, Alex was having flashbacks. Cagalli wore a green dress startlingly like the one she had worn at that party, four years earlier. She had been striking then and had only matured since. If there was any doubt that she was a princess, that was dispelled. As always, Alex kept his face expressionless; if it had been just the two of them, or maybe Kira and Flay as well, that would have been one thing, but he did not dare react in front of the Tiger.

For some reason, maintaining his poker face was harder than usual…

Aisha broke the silence. “You know, Andy, I think these two boys are lovestruck.”

Waltfeld grinned. “You know, I think you’re right.”

Reactions to that varied; Kira and Flay both blushed, while Cagalli glared at both ZAFT officers. Alex did not bother responding; he considered the teasing to be beneath his notice. Instead, he remained vigilant, his hand near the grip of his holstered pistol, while his friends sat on the couch.

That settled for the moment, Waltfeld turned to Alex. “I’ve been wanting to ask you, kid: Why are you fighting against ZAFT?”

Alex sighed. “Didn’t Aunt Ezalia tell you why?” He did not wait for an answer. “I am deeply, unalterably opposed to everything Patrick Zala stands for. I do not know why, but it has been obvious for months that he is lost his mind. Maybe it was the Bloody Valentine…” He shook his head. “In any case, he wants every last Natural dead.”

Waltfeld did not bother debating that point. For one thing, he had his own suspicions about Patrick Zala. “What about the fact that you’re fighting alongside an Earth Forces warship? One that your cousin is trying to bring down, no less.”

The younger man hissed through clenched teeth. “Because Rau Le Creuset launched an unprovoked attack on a neutral space colony. I had no intention of getting involved with the Earth Forces, but Heliopolis forced my hand.”

Waltfeld raised an eyebrow. “Unprovoked? The Earth Forces were building a warship and new mobile suits there, and they did cause the colony’s collapse.”

“The first statement is irrelevant, and the second is an outright lie,” Alex shot back. “The Orb government had no knowledge of the Earth Forces project, and the collapse of Heliopolis was triggered by the Le Creuset team’s illegal use of D-package weaponry inside the colony.”

The Tiger blinked. The report he had received had blamed the Earth Forces for the collapse. Maybe he should have been a little more skeptical. Strassmeier was not lying, that much was clear. With a mental shrug, he tabled the matter. “All right, then,” he said, reaching into a drawer. “It doesn’t matter, anyway.”

Alex tensed. This is not good. His hand closed around his pistol grip.

“What matters is that we’re in a war, and there are no clear rules for ending a war like this,” Waltfeld went on. His hand came out of the drawer, holding a large auto pistol. “So how do you determine the winners and losers? When every single one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Kira, Flay, and Cagalli leapt off the couch, Kira in front, and Alex whipped his own gun out. “Don’t do anything foolish, Commander,” the hawk-faced Coordinator said softly. “I’m well aware that we probably couldn’t fight our way out of here; I’m the only one armed, and all of your people are Coordinators.”

Waltfeld spared him a glance. It was his first good look at the youngster’s weapon. “A Luger, huh? There’s something you don’t see every day.” He shifted his attention to Kira. “I have no idea what your reasons are for fighting against your own people. Especially since your best friend is with the Le Creuset team.”

Kira swallowed hard. I… I do not…

“Save the mind games, Waltfeld,” Alex said coldly. “It’s not a matter of fighting his own people, Kira is an Orb national, and his only reason for fighting ZAFT is to protect his friends. The fact that they’re Naturals means nothing.”

Waltfeld held Kira’s gaze for a moment, then slowly lowered his pistol. “It makes you wonder if we have no choice but to destroy each other.”

Cagalli stared at him suspiciously. “You’re letting us go?”

“We didn’t meet today as enemies. This isn’t a battlefield.” He smiled. “I just wanted to talk this time.”

Next time, you will not be so merciful. “Of course,” Alex said. He looked back at Kira. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll catch up in a minute.”

Kira nodded. “All right.”

When the others had left, Alex holstered his weapon. “Commander, could I ask a small favor.”

Waltfeld raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“My cousin Yzak landed on Earth at the same time we did.” Alex hesitated. “Could you tell him…that I’d like to talk to him? Face to face, before everything goes crazy again. There should be time; you know as well as I do that it will be several days before either side is ready to move.”

The Tiger slowly nodded. “I can do that.”

“Thank you.” Alex turned on his heel and followed his friends.

Libyan desert

Sitting in the driver’s seat of a jeep the resistance had left for them, Alex explained his plans to the others. They were sympathetic, as he had expected; fighting against a relative was one of the most painful experiences imaginable.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Cagalli said.

Kira nodded. “You need to clear the air with him, if it’s possible.”

“It might not be,” Alex said, sighing. “Yzak’s pretty stubborn. Thanks for the support, though, all of you.”

Flay smiled. “What are friends for?”

“I know.” Alex was silent for a moment, then spoke in a lower voice, so that Kira and Flay could not hear over the engine noise. “Cagalli… that dress looks good on you.” He looked away before she could respond.

Cagalli blushed. Did he say that? Not that she minded; it was just surprising. Maybe there was more to Alex than even she had realized.

They drove the rest of the way in silence. Soon enough, they would go into battle once again.

Chapter 12: Teeth of the Tiger

Libyan Desert, 16 February, C.E. 71

Murrue and Mu hastily jumped back, narrowly avoiding a trampling by Desert Dawn guerrillas. They had gone from cautiously affable to almost blind with rage in a matter of seconds, and no one needed to ask why. If there were fires visible from Tassil, then the whole town had to be on fire.

Kisaka, predictably, had joined Sahib in a jeep driven by the youngster named Ahmed; he trusted Alex to take care of Cagalli in the interim. The three guerrillas roared off, Ahmed showing extraordinarily little regard for the concept of safe driving.

“Something nasty must have happened,” Mu observed. “If we can see fires from Tassil all the way out here…” He did not have to finish.

Murrue sighed. “We can’t take the Archangel out there, not when we’re not sure if it’s a trap. Still, someone should go.” She smiled at the Hawk. “How about it, Commander?”

Mu blinked. “You’re asking me?”

“We need someone to keep an eye on things,” the captain pointed out. “I’m sure Alex will be going, but that may not be enough.”

“And he has his own priorities anyway,” Mu agreed. “Okay, I’m on it.” He took off running.

“I’ll send Lieutenant Badgiruel with the Doctor and some supplies,” Murrue called after him.

Alex dashed into the Valkyrie’s hangar as fast as his legs would carry him. “Is the Stormbird ready?”

The chief mechanic saluted. “You didn’t take any real damage in the last fight, and the battery is already recharged. It’s ready to go.”

“Thanks, Chief.” Alex stepped onto the elevator that would take him to the cockpit and reached for the control.

A hand on his arm stopped him. “Alex, wait.”

He turned and blinked despite himself. Cagalli stood beside him, dressed in a form-fitting red flight suit. Alex was grateful for his iron self-control; it was the only thing that kept him from staring at her. As it was, he just barely stopped himself from blushing at his own thoughts.

Not now, Alex. “What is it?”

She stepped onto the lift. “I’m going with you.”

“Cagalli, this really isn’t a good time-“

“I told you before, I’ve had training,” she interrupted. “I’ve never piloted a mobile suit before, but that doesn’t make me useless in the field.”

Alex frowned. That was true, but still… “Is there any reason you bring this up now?”

Cagalli shrugged. “My father kept saying that I don’t know anything about the outside world. Well, it’s time that I learned.”

He regarded her a moment longer, then shrugged. “All right.” He tapped the lift controls. “Hang on, though, there’s only the one set of straps.” She nodded. “And keep that gun ready. We don’t know what we’ll find out there.”

“Got it.” Cagalli checked the weapon, a ten-millimeter auto pistol.

Moments later, they were ready for launch. Both were grateful that no one could see into the cockpit, as the single seat forced them into an… awkward position for launch. It was embarrassing, but the alternative was for Cagalli to be smashed against the back of the cockpit, with unpleasant results.

“I am very glad Mu didn’t see that” Alex muttered as the princess moved to his right.

Cagalli raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”

A snort. “Just before we landed, he suggested that you and I go out for dinner when we reach Orb. Need I say more?”

She rolled her eyes, knowing exactly what Alex was talking about. Mu La Flaga had a gift for innuendo, prompting Murrue to jokingly accuse him of harassment. Cagalli herself had nothing against the Hawk of Endymion, but his idea of humor could be irritating.

“That’s what I thought.” Alex nodded to the left. “Speaking of Mu, there’s his Skygrasper.” The figure in the machine’s cockpit waved a gloved hand at the Stormbird.

One thing both teens could easily see: Good though Mu was in a mobile armor, he was downright magic in an air-breathing fighter. The Skygrasper had a lean grace which the Zero lacked, and the Hawk was making the most of it. His plane seemed to read his mind, responding precisely to the control inputs.

“He’s good,” Cagalli murmured.

Alex nodded. “Better than I am, in atmosphere at least. I could probably take him in a space battle, but down here I would be at his mercy. Especially if he used the Launcher; a half-second burst from the Agni would take out even the Stormbird’s shield.” He glanced at her sidelong. “You have any pilot training?”

She nodded. “My father insisted. He said it might be useful someday.” She laughed softly. “Not that I was complaining. It’s a lot of fun.”

“I know what you mean.”

Tassil (or what was left of it) was coming into sight. Alex guided the mobile suit in for a gentle landing next to Mu’s Skygrasper.

He unstrapped. “Let’s get moving.”

Refugee camp, outskirts of Tassil

What a mess, Mu thought, doffing his helmet. Waltfeld had been thorough; after warning the people and giving them a chance to evacuate, he had burned Tassil to the ground. Even now, hours after the event, some of the fires still smoldered.

One of the Archangel’s jeeps pulled up next to the Stormbird, Natarle Badgiruel at the wheel. She stepped out and surveyed the scene before them. “The Desert Tiger doesn’t believe in doing things by halves,” she commented.

“You got that right,” Mu said, shaking his head. “He’s not as bad as Le Creuset, though; that bastard wouldn’t have given the people any warning.”

Natarle agreed. Andrew Waltfeld was highly skilled and extremely ruthless, but he was also a fundamentally decent man. “Somehow, I don’t think these people will agree.”

“You’re probably right. Not that I blame them.” He looked up, hearing the distinctive sound of a mobile suit’s zip line. Alex and Cagalli descended together, much to Mu’s amusement, a feeling which only grew when he saw Cagalli’s flight suit.

If either of the youngsters noticed his amusement, they did not show it; Alex was unreadable as usual, and Cagalli was focused on the improvised tent city. She soon broke away, looking for Sahib and Kisaka.

Alex moved to stand with the officers, shaking his head. “No wonder we could see the fires all the way from the Desert Dawn camp. I doubt there’s enough left of Tassil to provide decent housing for a rat.”

“For once, I agree with you,” Natarle said softly. She frowned, gazing after the princess. “Why did she come along?”

The Coordinator shrugged, though it was hard to tell in the dimness. “She told me that her father kept saying that she didn’t know anything about the world.” He waved a hand. “She decided it was time to change that.”

“And you gave her a ride, huh?” Mu said, grinning slyly.

Alex shot him a brief glance, no more. “If you are implying what I think you are implying, forget it. I have no interest in romance; Cagalli Yula Athha is a friend, nothing more.” He walked off after Cagalli.

Mu chuckled to himself. “Just a friend, huh? Yeah, right.” He turned back to his fighter. “I’d better report to the Captain.”

Natarle nodded; she had her own duties. Gesturing for the ship’s doctor to accompany her, she eased carefully into the crowded camp. Despite the mass destruction, no one appeared to be seriously injured; evidently Waltfeld had given them more than enough time to evacuate.

Strangely, most of the civilians seemed to find her Earth Forces uniform reassuring; perhaps it was because their immediate enemy was ZAFT. The fact that Sahib Ashman, leader of the Desert Dawn, trusted the Archangel’s crew was likely a factor as well.

A medic came up to her and saluted. “No fatalities, ma’am, and only minor injuries.”

“Strange,” Natarle murmured. “Even with the advance warning, you’d think the situation would be worse. The whole town destroyed, but no one badly hurt, let alone killed? It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s his nature,” a young voice said.

The XO turned. Brian Kilgore stood nearby, looking somehow even younger than he was. “What do you mean?”

“Andrew Waltfeld doesn’t kill without cause,” the Desert Rat replied. “He doesn’t like to, and besides, it would mean ZAFT is no better than the Earth Forces.”

Natarle frowned. “How do you know that?”

The youngster shrugged. “I read up on him after the Battle of Suez last year.”

She did not press him further. All five of the Valkyrie’s pilots were from the PLANTs, and though none had shown it, the current situation had to be eating at them. Natarle had no intention of adding to that unless she absolutely had to.

Archangel, Bridge

“…So that’s the situation, Captain,” Mu finished. “They can rebuild, but it’ll take a while.” He grimaced. “And in the meantime, we’ve got the Desert Tiger on our hands.”

Murrue closed her eyes briefly, suppressing a sigh. As they had unfortunately expected, Waltfeld had been very thorough. Almost all the Desert Dawn’s munitions stockpiles had been destroyed; now all they had left was a few artillery trucks and some small arms. The guerrillas would be helpless if Waltfeld attacked again.

“I suppose we don’t have a choice,” she said at last. “We can’t help these people or get out of the desert without first stopping Waltfeld.”

Mu nodded. “I think you’re right.” He glanced at something offscreen. “Talk to you later, ma’am.” He cut the circuit.

Murrue looked up at Kuzzey. “Connect me to the Valkyrie,” she ordered.

Lia was online moments later. “Hi, Aunt Murrue. What’s up?”

“It’s clear that we’ll need to fight our way past the Tiger if we are to get anywhere near Alaska,” the elder Ramius said. “In addition to that, with Tassil destroyed, the people are suffering greatly. We have to help them however we can.”

Lia nodded. “I’m already on it. Commander La Flaga gave us the coordinates of the refugee camp, so we will be sending supplies over. How are the Desert Dawn for weapons?”

“All they have left are a few artillery trucks and some small arms,” Flay Allster said; she had been assigned to logistics. “Nothing they have could handle ZuOOTs, let alone BuCUEs.”

“That’s what I thought,” Lia said with a sigh. “Alex and Cagalli went out in the Stormbird, and Brian followed them with the Scorpion. Unless we can get our other machines set up for desert warfare, there isn’t a whole lot we can do.”

Murrue drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I guess Alex, Brian, and Kira will have to take up most of the load,” she said reluctantly. “I hate to have to leave it to them, but as you said, there isn’t much we can do. Our ships can deal with the land battleships, but they will have to take care of the mobile suits.”

Lia nodded unhappily. “You’re right.”

Refugee camp

Alex stretched wearily, stifling a groan. Tassil had been destroyed just after midnight, and he had arrived at the camp an hour later. Now it was nearly dawn, and only a combination of his martial arts training and Coordinator stamina kept him awake at all.

If only Yzak could see me now, he though sardonically. Seeing to the well-being of refugees after ZAFT reduces their town to rubble.

Cagalli appeared next to him. “Only minor injuries, but it’ll take a long time for them to rebuild.” She looked him over. “How are you doing?”

“I don’t think full gravity agrees with me,” Alex said, stretching again. “I haven’t been planet side in four years, and a couple of days isn’t enough time to get reacclimated.”

“I guess you’re right.” The princess took a breath and blew half of it out. “My father was right about me. I didn’t know much about the world outside Orb.”

Alex grunted softly. “You’re getting a crash course in it, now. First you get caught in an attack by the Le Creuset team, then spend three weeks running from them, and now you are in the middle of a fight with Le Creuset’s Earthbound counterpart. Fun.”

“Yeah.” She shook her head. “I’m still not sure Father wasn’t involved in the G-weapon project. I don’t see how it could have gotten this far otherwise.”

Her friend snorted. “Cagalli, let me remind you that we have identified one, and only one, person connected to the Orb government: Rondo Ghina Sahaku. Do you really think your father is going to cooperate with the Sahakus on something like this?”

Cagalli sighed. “You’re right. It’s just…I guess I was just shocked by what I saw at Heliopolis.” Her face took on a faraway look for a moment. “I still can’t figure out why the Sahaku twins would be helping the Earth Forces.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”

“They’re both Coordinators,” she replied. “You know even better than I do how the Alliance feels about that.”

An understatement, that. Alex knew more about the Alliance’s attitude towards Coordinators than he had ever wanted to learn. He had been mildly surprised that none of the Archangel’s crew had anything against his kind. It was to be expected that Murrue would be kindly disposed, but someone like Natarle Badgiruel, who came from an old military family, was another matter entirely.

Both turned at the sound of angry voices. “What’s that?” Cagalli wondered. She and Alex moved nearer. “Sahib?”

Alex frowned. “Sounds like he’s arguing with someone.” He checked his sidearm; with emotions running wild like this, it was all too possible that something would break.

Sahib was arguing with another guerrilla, a man with a bandana covering the lower half of his face. “It’s suicide!” the leader was saying.

“So, are we just supposed to be the Tiger’s lap dogs?” the other shot back.

Alex stepped to Sahib’s side. “Sahib is correct. If you intend to pursue Waltfeld, you are making a serious mistake.”

The masked guerrilla gave him an icy look. “We’ll see about that,” he spat.

Alex covered a sigh. “You have eight artillery trucks and some small arms against three top-of-the-line TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, commanded by Andrew Waltfeld.” He let his tone cool. “If you go after him, the only thing you will accomplish is a meaningless death.”

That visibly infuriated the man. “You little bastard,” he snarled. “Who do you think you are? Was it your home the Tiger destroyed? Is it your people he oppresses every day?” Without waiting for a response, he spun around and stalked off.

This is going to get ugly. Alex went for his machine, knowing that the guerrillas would need all the help they could get.

Cagalli paced him for a few steps. “Sahib’s going after them. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try to save them from themselves,” he said darkly. He reached for the zip line. “Sorry I can’t take you along, but there’s only the one seat.”

Since flying in combat was a lot different their journey to the camp, she had no intention of arguing. “I understand.” She gave him a quick hug, much to his surprise. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

The Stormbird lifted off. Cagalli watched it go, feeling more than a little frustrated. She did not blame Alex, of course, but she was tired of sitting back while others did all the work. Her role on the Valkyrie helped some, keeping her occupied, but she did not want to be stuck in the rear echelon forever.

A gloved hand landed on her shoulder. “You okay?”

Cagalli looked up, surprised. “Commander La Flaga?”

The Hawk of Endymion smiled. “You look kind of down, kid.”

She frowned, not sure what he was getting at, then shrugged. “I’m just frustrated. I have had training, but I have always had to stay in the back. It’s not Alex’s fault -there’s no way I could help in something like the Stormbird- but still.”

“Hey, I know what you mean.” He looked at her speculatively. “You’ve had training, huh? Would that include pilot training?”

Cagalli blinked. What is this about? “Yeah, why?”

Mu smiled slyly. “If we are going up against the Tiger, we need every machine we’ve got. Think you can handle a Skygrasper?”

She gaped. “Y-Yeah, but…”

“Then let’s get going.” He waved her to his own machine’s rear seat. “Besides, you want to keep Alex out of trouble, don’t you?”

If he had not been an officer, Cagalli would have smacked him.

Archangel, Bridge

Murrue frowned. “Are you sure about this, Commander? What about the refugees?”

Mu waved his hand. “Lieutenant Badgiruel can handle that. In the meantime, we need everything out there. Alex has already left, and I’ll bet his buddy Kilgore will be going, too.”

She sighed. “You’re right.” She investigated CIC. “Crewman Haw, have Ensign Yamato launch at once.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“We’ll have a little extra help,” Mu said. “It seems the princess has had some pilot training. I figure she can handle a Skygrasper.”

Murrue started to object, then closed her mouth and forced herself to consider more carefully. If Cagalli was trained in fighter operations, then it would be helpful, allowing them to get both Skygraspers in the air. And her experience with the Valkyrie had taught her not to turn down free help.

“All right, then,” she said at last. “You’re right, we can use the help. Cagalli, stay close to Commander La Flaga. You may be trained, but you don’t have any experience.”

The princess nodded. “I understand.”

Mu’s Skygrasper made a smooth landing on the starboard flight deck. Moments later, refueled and rearmed, it launched again, this time with another plane on his wing. While an occasional hesitation betrayed her inexperience, Cagalli clearly knew what she was doing.

A humanoid shape flashed past them, Kira’s X105 Strike. He had learned from the night’s battle and had insisted on the Aile pack for this mission. Mobility was far more important than raw firepower when fighting BuCUEs. Since the Aile pack allowed the Strike to fly, this time Kira would have the advantage.

Good luck, Murrue thought.

Libyan desert

Cagalli felt a thrill as she took to the air. As far as she was concerned, nothing beat the feeling of atmospheric flight, though space travel came close. Though she had never flown a Skygrasper before, it was Cagalli had little trouble keeping pace with Mu’s fighter.

“You okay back there?” Mu called.

She grinned. “I’m fine. The controls are a little more sensitive than I’m used to, but I’ll be all right.”

Mu smiled to himself. Cagalli was clearly having the time of her life. He knew how she felt; his first solo flight had been the biggest thrill of his life. “Glad to hear it.” He glanced at his scope. “No sign of the BuCUEs yet, but there’s Alex. Wonder where his buddy is.”

“Probably under the sand; the Scorpion is meant for desert warfare, after all.”

“Makes sense,” Mu agreed. “As soon as we find Waltfeld, give Alex some backup. I know the Captain said to stay close to me, but I’m hard to keep up with in a fight.”

“Roger that.”

Alex had spotted the BuCUEs with his machine’s more capable scanners. There you are, Waltfeld. He powered up his weapons, not taking his eyes off the ZAFT mobile suits. BuCUEs had given him trouble in his first planet side engagement, but he had learned. This time, he and Kira would both be ready.

“Hey, Alex!”

He looked back, seeing not one but two Skygraspers behind him. “Cagalli? What are you doing out here?”

“Commander La Flaga gave me a ride to the Archangel.” Her blue-and-white fighter settled in beside him. “When I told him I’d had pilot training, he figured I could be helpful.” She gave him a thumbs-up. “I’m your backup.”

Alex nodded. “Got it. Take them from a distance; you know as well as I do that taking a fighter in close against BuCUEs is a bad idea.”

“Roger that.”

“I see the Desert Dawn jeeps,” Kira put in. “They’re closing in on the BuCUEs.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “I see them. Let us see if we can save them from themselves.”

All in all, it had been a good day for the Waltfeld team. Sure, they had been stymied by the two warships, but they had dealt a severe blow to the local resistance fighters. From what they would hear, there was no way the guerrillas could have much in the way of weapons left.

“Couldn’t we go any faster?” DaCosta said plaintively.

Waltfeld gave him an amused glance. “What, are you afraid that those guerrillas will chase us?” He did not wait for an answer. “It would be suicide. Sure, there are those who say they’d rather be dead, but not many follow through on it.”

“Commander,” one of the BuCUE pilots said suddenly. “We have several small vehicles incoming. They appear to belong to the resistance.”

The Tiger sat upright. “Maybe they really would rather be dead.”

“They’ve spotted your friends, Cagalli,” Alex said tightly. “Kira?”

“I see it,” the other responded. “I don’t think they’ve noticed us, though.”

Alex shook his head. “That won’t last. Cagalli, get some altitude. Try to nail them with missiles. And don’t worry about hitting us; our Phase-shift will take care of that.”

“Roger.” Cagalli’s Skygrasper stood on its tail and screamed skyward.

“All right, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s go!”

The Strike and the Stormbird flew side by side, thus far unnoticed by the ZAFT pilots. Unfortunately, as Alex said, it was not going to last. What they had to do was get into firing range as quickly as possible, lest the Desert Dawn be wiped out.

For some, it was already too late. One jeep was run over by a BuCUE; two more narrowly avoided the same fate. Sahib was visible in another jeep, two rocket launchers in hand. They went off simultaneously, striking a BuCUE in a foreleg’s joint. Another ZAFT machine turned toward them; a leg came up…

And then the two Gundams were in range. A pinpoint shot from the Stormbird blew off the offending leg. The Strike followed suit, narrowly missing another BuCUE.

“I missed?” Kira said, startled.

“Adjust your targeting computer to compensate for the heat convection,” Alex advised him, dodging a missile barrage. Phase-shift would allow him to survive, but it could be worn down.

“Got it.”

A double salvo of missiles struck from above; Mu had reformed with Cagalli, and now both Skygraspers were blasting away with everything they had. It was not enough to hurt the BuCUEs -yet- but it certainly gave them something else to think about.

“The new Earth Forces machine?” DaCosta said in surprise. “And the black ship’s lead unit?”

Waltfeld smiled thinly. “That kid’s good. He’s already compensated for the heat convection, and his current equipment gives him the advantage in mobility.”

“What now, sir?” the younger man asked.

“I test this guy myself.” Waltfeld brought up a radio handset. “Kirkwood!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Let me get in there and pilot that BuCUE.” Waltfeld looked down at DaCosta. “Some things you can’t understand without exchanging fire with one another.”

When the lead BuCUE abruptly changed its tactics, Kira, and Alex both knew something was up. It had been performing well before, but now it was going all out. Whoever was piloting it know, he was no ordinary ZAFT soldier.

Kira got it first. “Alex, I think Waltfeld himself is in that thing.”

Alex bit back a savage curse. “The two of us together might not be a match for that guy. The Skygraspers don’t count; no offence to Cagalli and Mu, but their machines are no match for BuCUEs.”

His friend sighed. “You’re right. It’s up to us.” He suddenly remembered another machine. “What about Brian?”

“He’s a wild card,” Alex said. “It’s best if he operates as he sees fit; he knows more about this kind of warfare than I do.”

Then there was no more time for talk. The BuCUEs came at them in unison, missiles tracing their path. Kira and Alex dodged to either side, downing some of the missiles with their CIWS. Alex even went to far as to destroy one with a beam saber. He was making a point to the ZAFT people: BuCUEs are good, but Gundams are better.

Waltfeld apparently did not get the point. He and his two cohorts assumed a three-pronged formation, focused entirely on the Strike, and Alex felt his lip twist as he realized why he was being largely ignored. Not many ZAFT commanders would be willing to risk angering Ezalia Joule by killing her nephew.

“Even if you only use regular missiles, the Phase-shift loses its effect after seventy-six hits,” Waltfeld said, grinning. “When that happens, the rifle simultaneously runs out of power.”

Give me a break! Two of the missiles impacted on the Strike’s face, temporarily blinding Kira. He hit his thrusters and jumped back, trying to get some breathing space.

“Now, you weird and wonderful pilot,” Waltfeld said, his grin widening, “how you gonna get out of this jam?”

Alex lined up his beam rifle, hoping he was in time to help. He squeezed the trigger…and something impacted hard on the Stormbird, causing the shot to go wide. “What the-!”

“Alex!” Cagalli called frantically. “More BuCUEs, five of them! Watch out!”

Alex swore savagely, turning to face the new threat. To make matters worse, the new arrivals were equipped with railguns, which were more dangerous because of their high-density projectiles. Combined with their high mobility, that made them a serious problem for a single mobile suit, Gundam or not.

And then it went from bad to worse, and Alex swore again as the BuCUEs sprouted beam sabers from their heads. Dodging a railgun shot, he managed to snap off a laser blast, striking a BuCUEs battery. The resultant explosion seemed to disorient the other pilots, but only briefly.

Kira, meanwhile, was once again proving that he was no ordinary pilot. The SEED had burst, and he was driving his enemies nuts. One missile salvo exploded against a wall of sand the Strike threw up, and a BuCUE took a laser blast dead center, destroying it.

Beset by four BuCUEs, Alex blocked another railgun shot, then dodged a saber slash. This is getting very annoying.

Behind his eyes, an ice-blue seed exploded.

His mind suddenly as cold and clear as the vacuum of space, Alex lunged up and forward, stabbing a saber into one BuCUEs head and dragging it along, slicing the ZAFT machine in half lengthwise. Another BuCUE tried to avenge his partner, only to receive a laser beam in the side.

Two to go. A plasma shot incinerated a third BuCUE, and Alex turned to the last one…which was no longer there. Brian Kilgore’s Scorpion Gundam has erupted from the sand, Stinger flashing, and the last BuCUE broke in half and exploded.

Alex sighed with relief. “Thanks, Brian. I owe you one.”

“What are friends for?” Still in mobile armor mode, the Scorpion waggled its wings and departed.

The other battle was going well. One of the BuCUEs had been incapacitated when Kira threw the Strike’s shield at it. Waltfeld himself was still in the game, but in a one-on-one fight, Kira Yamato had the advantage. He adroitly tossed the Strike around, dodging more than half of the Tiger’s attacks.

“Now you’ve taken this way too far!” Waltfeld snarled. Another missile salvo flashed out.

Kira was having none of it. His CIWS took out the missiles, and a saber slash neatly cut off the BuCUEs right foreleg.

Knowing he had lost, the Tiger turned away. “Hurry, DaCosta, we’re retreating!”

“Right, sir!”

Waltfeld smiled to himself. ‘”Now that is my kind of guy. Been a while since I had this much fun.” He found himself hoping that he would have a chance to meet young Kira Yamato face to face.

Kira and Alex watched him go, both breathing heavily. “Come on, Kira,” Alex said. “Let’s get back to base.”

“Right.”

The two mobile suits spun in midair, flanked by a pair of Skygraspers. They had just won a battle, but the war was far from over.

Desert Dawn base camp

Kira released the zip line as his feet touched the desert floor and was immediately tackled by Flay. He returned the fierce embrace, more grateful than ever for her support.

“Kira, I was so scared,” Flay whispered into his shoulder. “When I heard Waltfeld was out there in person.”

He gently stroked her hair. “It was hard, but I managed it.” He frowned. “It was strange, though. Near the end of the battle, I suddenly felt almost serene. I don’t know how to describe it, except that my mind was incredibly clear.”

“It’s called the SEED,” Alex explained, walking over with Cagalli. “Superior Evolutionary Element Destined Factor. Those who possess it are capable of incredible feats when it activates.”

Flay looked from one Coordinator to the other. “Has it happened before?”

“Twice,” Kira said. “The first time was when the Blitz was attacking the Archangel’s Bridge, the second was the other night, when those missiles came in.” He looked at Alex. “How do you know about it?”

Alex shrugged. “My father was a geneticist, remember.”

Cagalli looked at him sharply. “Alex, when you faced those extra BuCUEs, you seemed to change. Was it…?”

“The SEED? Yes. I never thought I would have that ability, but…” Alex looked rueful for a moment. “Dad must have known, though. I can’t think of any other reason he would have spoken to me about it, since it’s only a theory…technically.”

Kira raised his eyebrows. “Technically?”

“Well, I think you and I have proved that it’s more than just a theory.” Alex flexed his prosthetic arm. “It saved both our lives today.” He took a water bottle a guerrilla offered him. “Me more than you; even without the SEED, your abilities are beyond belief.”

The other Coordinator looked at him incredulously. “Come on, I’m not that good.”

“Yes, you are,” Alex disagreed. “Kira, even though you had no combat experience whatsoever prior to Heliopolis, you have yet to lose a single engagement. I’ve had training, yet you are better than I could ever hope to be.”

Kira decided not to pursue the matter further. He stood, Flay’s arm tucked through his. “I’d better get some rest. We won today, but you can bet Waltfeld will be back.”

“Right.”

Flay watched over her shoulder as Alex and Cagalli made their way back to the Valkyrie. The hawk-faced Coordinator had been a textbook lesson in not judging by appearance. His cold exterior hid a great deal. There was pain at what had happened to his family, and an implacable hatred of the Earth Forces, but at the same time there was almost painfully intense compassion. Flay was one of the few outside his family who had seen it; as far as she knew, the only others were Kira, Lia, and Captain Ramius.

And Cagalli, of course. She nudged her boyfriend. “You think Cagalli needs her head examined?”

Kira blinked, not sure what she was talking about, then grinned. “Yeah, I think so. She’s almost like a shadow.”

He was not the only one to have noticed that. Mu La Flaga and Lia Ramius had both seen how close the two youngsters had become since the escape from Heliopolis. Cagalli’s short-lived belief that Alex was a ZAFT spy had meant little in the end.

“I think those two are perfect for each other,” Flay said, managing to sound both light and almost profoundly serious.

Kira glanced at her. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve seen how Alex has been hurting,” Flay began. Kira nodded; he had learned to read their cold-blooded friend to a limited extent. “His parents are dead, his sister’s missing, he has to fight his own cousin, and he can’t go home. He needs someone who can help him through it.”

The Strike pilot nodded again. “That makes sense. What about Cagalli?”

“She’s never had a chance to really be herself.” Flay shook her head, her long red hair swinging with the motion. “Alex is one of the few people who sees her just as another person, not a princess. It has to be a relief for her.” She shuddered. “She used to be engaged to Yuuna Seiran.”

Kira’s lip twisted. As an Orb national, he knew a little about the Five Noble Families, and the Seirans were not among his favorite people. “You think Alex is a better match for her?”

“I think Rau Le Creuset would be better than Yuuna Seiran, but yeah.” Flay grimaced, then shook herself. “But we shouldn’t be thinking about that right now.” Before Kira could react, she kissed him long and hard.

Bismarck, Daniel Bartlett’s quarters

Bartlett read the message from the homeland for the fourth time. He doubted that he had missed anything, but it always paid to be certain, especially with a mission of such importance. Success could mean glory and -more importantly, from Bartlett’s perspective- advancement. Failure could well mean a dishonorable discharge, or worse.

Not that I am going to fail. He keyed the intercom. “Michael, I’ll be temporarily leaving the ship.”

Harriman nodded. “So, the communique contained new orders?”

“Orders of the highest importance,” Bartlett confirmed. “Orders from Committee Chairman Zala himself.” He smiled at the captain’s expression. “I’ll be heading for Carpentaria to take part in the preliminaries for Operation Spit Break.”

Harriman frowned. “Spit Break? But that’s months away, and it hasn’t even been approved by the Council yet.”

“Yet.” Bartlett smiled thinly. “It will be, sooner or later. In any case, I will be assuming command of the submarine carrier Ballard. If the legged ship gets past Waltfeld, they’ll also get past Morassim; the man is an incompetent of the lowest order.” He snorted. “If they make it, I will be waiting.” The intercom clicked off.

Do get past Waltfeld and the submariner, Strassmeier. I so want to have a rematch.

Chapter 11: Duel Over the Desert

Sahara Desert, African Community, 15 February, C.E. 71

If someone with no knowledge of the present war had happened upon the Archangel and the Valkyrie, all they would have seen were a pair of odd-looking ships, quiescent for the moment. Such an impression was deceptive; as they were in enemy territory, both ships were at a constant state of alert. They knew that they would soon come up against the best ZAFT’s ground forces had to offer.

Not that they would be alone.

As it happened, a third party had stumbled across the two warships. The Desert Dawn, the most active of the local resistance groups, had spotted them coming in. While they had no love for the Earth Forces, they had even less for ZAFT, and were now trying to decide on their next move.

“What do you make of it, Kisaka?” Sahib Ashman, the leader of the group asked.

Ledonir Kisaka, who only Ashman knew was a Colonel in the Orb Ground Forces, squinted at the ships through his binoculars. “The white one is definitely the new Earth Forces ship, the Archangel,” he said. “I don’t recognize the black ship.”

“I heard rumors about it,” a young fighter named Ahmed offered. “They say it’s an independent ship that gave the Le Creuset team fits. I hear they’ve got at least a couple of prototype mobile suits.”

Sahib turned to look at him. Ahmed was somewhat naive, but he had a knack for picking up trivia. “Did you hear anything else?”

Ahmed shrugged. “Their lead pilot is supposed to be related to someone on the Supreme Council; a renegade, I guess.”

“Probably Strassmeier,” Kisaka murmured, so quietly that only Sahib could hear. “Ezalia Joule’s nephew. He disappeared last year, just after the Bloody Valentine.”

The resistance leader frowned. “Why would he be fighting ZAFT? Joule’s a hardliner; I can’t see one of her relations turning against the PLANTs.”

“I don’t know.” The bigger man -Ledonir Kisaka was an imposing figure- shrugged. “It doesn’t matter right now. We have more immediate things to worry about.”

And you want to find your runaway princess, Sahib added mentally. Cagalli Yula Athha had vanished when Heliopolis collapsed, and there had been no news of her since. Her father was worried sick, and Kisaka, her longtime bodyguard, was not much better off.

They were interrupted by a buzz from a radio in their jeep. Ahmed picked up a handset. “Yes, what is it?”

“The Tiger has left the Lesseps,” the other said. “He’s heading toward those ships with an undetermined number of BuCUEs.”

There were muttered curses all around. None of them had any illusions of the coming fight; Andrew Waltfeld was a dangerous man. If he was planning to attack the newly arrived warships, then he clearly believed he could win.

“What do we do, Sahib?” Kisaka asked.

Sahib sighed. “It goes against the grain to help the Earth Forces, but I don’t think we have a choice. Enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.”

“So, we’re going to help the Archangel?” Ahmed asked.

Sahib nodded. “We don’t have enough firepower to fight BuCUEs directly, so we’ll lay a trap.” He waved another resistance fighter over. “Find a good spot and plant some mines. We’ll make a pit for the Tiger to fall into.”

Archangel, bridge

Natarle Badgiruel stretched out in the command chair, stifling a yawn. The night watch had only a skeleton crew due to the loss of the replacements when the advance fleet was destroyed. Now, there were only four people on the bridge: Natarle herself, Arnold Neumann, Romero Pal, and Sai Argyle. All in all, it had been very boring thus far.

Neumann abruptly provided some welcome amusement. He sipped from a cup of water, then, forgetting that they were now on Earth, absently released the cup in midair. Gravity then had its way, with predictable -and messy- results.

Natarle could not help chuckling. “Ensign Neumann, please remember that we’re under gravity now. I’d hate to have to explain to the Captain why we needed a mop on the bridge.”

The newly commissioned officer smiled sheepishly. “I’ll try, ma’am.”

“Good.” Natarle sat back, throwing a surreptitious glance around the bridge. Despite the late hour, the bridge watch performed flawlessly. That included Sai, to the surprise of some. Natarle was not among them; if nothing else, the sort of school Sai and his friends had attended before Rau Le Creuset had brought them into the war had probably prepared them for all-nighters.

Truth be told, she had taken a liking to the students, though she would never admit it. Even though, except for Flay, they had no previous connection to the Earth Forces, they had cheerfully lent their abilities to the Archangel, with remarkable results.

Especially Kira Yamato. His was a particularly difficult situation. Not only did he not have any prior connection to the Earth Forces, but volunteering had also meant he had to face his best friend in combat. Her desire to keep Kira with them aside, Natarle had nothing but sympathy for the youngster, which was why she supported the dispensation allowing him to avoid using lethal force against the Aegis.

Captain Ramius was right about one thing, she admitted to herself. I cannot imagine what Ensign Yamato must be going through.

“Lieutenant, I’m picking up several heat sources,” Pal said abruptly. “Definitely mobile suits,”

“Confirmed,” Sai said; in addition to his EW duties, he was filling in for Tonomura. “Checking profiles…TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, at least five, possibly more.”

Natarle cursed. “It must be Waltfeld; just what we need.” She punched an intercom button. “All hands, Level One Battlestations! Captain Ramius, to the bridge, on the double!” She looked up at Pal. “Get me the Valkyrie,”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Alex Strassmeier and Lia Ramius appeared on the screen side-by-side, the former already in-flight gear. “I take it you’ve picked up on our uninvited guests?” he said bluntly.

Natarle nodded. “At least five BuCUEs, possibly more. What’s your status?”

“Only two of our mobile suits are ready, Brian’s Scorpion and my Stormbird,” Alex said. “The other three aren’t ready for desert combat.” His lip twisted. “To be honest, I don’t think the others will ever really be ready; we’ll have to use them as fire support.”

“Understood. What about your ship?”

Lia consulted her board, then nodded. “We’re good to go. Like you, we cannot make high altitudes -three hundred meters, max- but everything else is fine.”

“Good,” Murrue said, stepping onto the bridge with the rest of the regulars in tow. Natarle quickly vacated the command chair. “Kira’s already in the Strike, but I don’t think we can send him out; he hasn’t fully recovered yet.”

Alex shrugged. “His recuperative powers might surprise you, but I see your point. What about Mu?”

“Chief Murdoch’s people are getting Commander La Flaga’s Skygrasper prepped now,” Mir said. “It might take some time, though; apparently they’ve run into a few bugs.”

The Coordinator nodded grimly. “I understand. We’ll do what we can.”

Skies over the desert

“No rest for the weary,” Alex muttered, fastening his restraints.

A quiet laugh sounded over the comm. “I think that’s no rest for the wicked,” Cagalli said with a smile.

“You do so much for my ego,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Anything more on the situation?”

She nodded. “We’ve got eight BuCUEs, about a dozen Agile helicopters, and six of another mobile suit type.” The princess frowned. “The catalogue is calling them TAF-2 ZuOOTs.”

Alex snorted derisively. “Ignore them; ZuOOTs are little more than heavily armed targets. The BuCUEs are the real threat.” He pressed his head firmly against the seat back. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

“Brian Kilgore, Scorpion launching!” the younger pilot echoed. Once clear, he immediately shifted to mobile armor mode and dove beneath the sand.

Alex spared him a glance, then boosted sideways, cursing as a BuCUE lunged at him. He triggered a beam shot, cursing again when he missed to the side. What is going on here? Two more shots missed, then he finally connected, blowing off a missile pod.

Okay, a partial victory. Electing to try something a little less subtle, Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon and fired directly at the ground, blasting sand everywhere and clogging up an Agile’s air intakes. The ZAFT chopper spun out of control and slammed into the ground, exploding with a roar.

A BuCUE tried to retaliate, but soon had another problem. “You think BuCUEs rule the desert? Think again!” Brian shouted, bursting out of the sand. His Stinger beam cannon flashed twice, blowing the BuCUE cleanly in half.

Alex smiled grimly. One down. Almost casually, his Igelstellungs reduced another Agile to scrap. Ignoring the remaining choppers, he took careful aim at a ZuOOT. The ZAFT pilot unloaded his entire arsenal, and then Alex pulled the trigger.

Boom. Apparently, he had hit the machine’s energy battery.

His ESM (electronic surveillance measures) unit beeped. Alex looked down at the board, frowning. Encrypted radio chatter? What is the point? We already know the BuCUEs are here. It was possible that this was a diversion, but Alex thought that unlikely. They were fighting the Desert Tiger and using meaningless radio signals -especially encrypted radio signals- was not Waltfeld’s style.

He keyed his comm. “Archangel, Valkyrie, watch out. I’m picking up encrypted radio signals, and they’re not directed at the BuCUEs.”

“Commander La Flaga launched about five minutes ago,” Mir responded. “He says there’s a land battleship somewhere over the horizon.”

“Probably the Lesseps, Waltfeld’s flagship,” Alex said, grimacing. “But I don’t think that’s the source.”

He was right. The real source was close at hand.

“Well, this is interesting,” Andrew Waltfeld said, sipping his coffee. “No sign of the Strike, but that black ship’s machines are putting up quite a fight.”

Martin DaCosta, his aide-de-camp and protégé, looked up at him. “Is it true that their lead pilot is Representative Joule’s nephew?”

Waltfeld nodded. “Yep. I met the kid once, after a certain martial arts tournament. Cold on the outside, but do not let that fool you. He’s a PLANT patriot to the core, never mind that he’s helping an Earth Forces ship.”

“So, we’re not shooting to kill?”

The Commander gave his aide a sardonic look. “I don’t know about you, DaCosta, but I don’t want to have to explain to Ezalia Joule why we blew up her nephew. He and his people are killing our people, but there are such things as mitigating circumstances.”

DaCosta nodded thoughtfully. “And Commander Bartlett?”

Waltfeld laughed. “Don’t fool yourself, DaCosta, Dan Bartlett is no match for Strassmeier.” He winced slightly as another Agile fell to the Stormbird’s guns. “Bartlett’s problem is that he can’t see past his own grudges. Strassmeier has a computer in his head; sure, he has his own grudges, mainly against the Atlantic Federation, but they do not affect his thinking. They just make him more determined.”

“What do we do?”

The Tiger studied the two ships closely. “The Lesseps will be in firing range in about ten minutes. If we can keep those two mobile suits occupied, the legged ship will be in for a world of hurt.”

DaCosta followed his commander’s gaze. “And if they launch the Strike?”

“That depends on which equipment module they use.” Waltfeld took another sip of coffee. “If they’re smart, they’ll use the Aile pack; from what I remember of that Zala kid’s report, that’s the best one for combat within a gravity well.”

“I see.” The younger man nodded thoughtfully. “And if they use one of the other packs…”

“Then we show them why BuCUEs rule the desert.” Waltfeld smiled grimly.

Unfortunately, like the Le Creuset team before them, they were underestimating Kira Yamato. By the time they realized their mistake, it would be far too late.

This is getting annoying, Alex thought, dodging a persistent BuCUE. A shot from his rifle disposed of the problem, allowing him to take stock of the battle.

It was not encouraging. There were still Agiles flitting around, not to mention several more BuCUEs. The ZuOOTs were inconsequential; as Alex had said, they were little more than heavily armed targets. However, the land battleship Lesseps had finally gotten into firing range and was busy lobbing missiles at the Archangel.

Alex watched a ZuOOT detonate under his fire. “Murrue, you need to launch the Strike. This is our first fight under gravity; even with the Stormbird and the Scorpion, there’s a limit to what we can do.”

Murrue shook her head. “I’d love to, but it’s not possible. Kira’s not ready to fight.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Alex countered, his CIWS downing a missile barrage. “His recuperative powers exceed even Coordinator norm. Even if he has not recovered fully, if you do not send him out now, it’ll be too late.”

The captain started to reply but was interrupted by her intercom. “This is crazy!” Kira Yamato said. “Alex is right, I have to launch! If this is really Waltfeld…”

Murrue sighed. “Very well.”

Archangel, hangar/ Libyan desert

Kira was almost shaking with impatience as the deck crew guided his Strike to the catapult. He had dashed to the hangar almost before the alarms went off, knowing that he would be needed soon. Murrue’s initial refusal to authorize a launch had frustrated him; with the Desert Tiger out there, they needed every machine that could be launched.

Come on, come on, hurry up

“Connected to catapult,” Mir said. “Attach Launcher Striker.” As she spoke, the hangar’s robotic arms attached the shoulder unit and hyper-impulse cannon. “System all green.”

Kira set himself. “Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!”

He encountered his first problem the instant he left the ship. The Strike landed on the desert sand…and promptly sank. Stifling an incredulous curse, Kira hit his thrusters, getting about two hundred meters from the ship before sinking again.

He knew he could resolve the problem if given enough time, but ZAFT had no intention of letting that happen. A BuCUE came seemingly out of nowhere, knocking the Strike on its back. Kira was able to fight it off, but he knew it would be but a momentary reprieve.

“Well, well, well. I guess they didn’t want to be smart.”

DaCosta looked up at his CO’s comment. “Sir?”

Waltfeld smirked. “They launched the Strike with its heavy weapons package. Sure, that hyper-impulse cannon could be nasty, but that assumes the pilot can aim it, and I do not think our BuCUEs are going to let him. If he had launched with the Aile, maybe he would have a chance, but as it is…”

DaCosta nodded. A hyper-impulse cannon was of little use if the machine it was mounted on could not maneuver to aim it.

The enemy apparently realized that as well; as they watched, the yellow X300 frame moved to assist the Strike, scattering the BuCUEs with a hail of laser fire.

“There’s only so much that guy can do,” Waltfeld said, as if he had read DaCosta’s thoughts. “Unless they get their act together, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Kira, you need to adjust your OS!” Brian called. “Adjust the weight distribution to account for the granularity of the sand!”

Of course. “Roger that. Thanks, Brian.” Cursing his own idiocy, Kira halted his machine, trusting the phase-shift to keep him safe, and began rapidly typing.

Less than a minute later, the Strike was moving smoothly on the desert sand. “That’s better,” Kira murmured. “I hate feeling helpless.”

A BuCUE pilot, not realizing that the Strike had adapted to the new conditions, lunged at him from behind. Kira, not impressed in the slightest, slammed the Agni’s stock into the ZAFT machine, knocking it back. The BuCUE landed on its back and tried to rise, only to be pinned by the Strike’s foot.

Kira glared at his opponent, leveling the Agni. “Here, have some of this!”

A blast from a hyper-impulse cannon at point-blank range produced spectacular results.

Seconds later, the remaining ZuOOTs fell to the Stormbird’s beam rifle. Another BuCUE detonated when Brian hammered it with his Stinger, followed by the last of the Agiles, courtesy of Mu La Flaga.

They were not safe yet. There were still four BuCUEs, and the Lesseps was still sending missiles at the Archangel. Even worse for the Earth Forces, the mobile suits were running low on power. Alex’s shield was useless, as the enemy did not have any beam weapons, and Kira had fired the Agni more than he should have.

Then Kira saw two missile salvos heading for the Archangel. No! An amethyst seed burst behind his eyes and, his mind suddenly noticeably clear, he snapped off a shot from the Agni, vaporizing the first salvo. Knowing that he did not have enough energy for another shot, he took care of the rest by grabbing the nearest BuCUE and throwing it into the path of the swarm.

BOOM.

Alex watched approvingly, then cursed. “I’m out of power. Nothing else I can do here.”

“Roger that,” Cagalli said. “Brian’s returning, too. Can Kira handle the BuCUEs on his own?”

Alex started to reply, then caught himself. “He won’t have to,” he said, eyes narrowed at the new data on his display. “I think that resistance group you mentioned just arrived.”

He was right. After receiving a message telling him to lure the BuCUEs into a trap, Kira took off, conserving his power as much as possible. As soon as the BuCUEs caught up with him, he jumped away, leaving the enemy machines to their doom.

One very messy explosion later, it was all over.

Andrew Waltfeld took his defeat philosophically. “I guess they were better than I thought,” he said, shrugging. “That X300 frame was obviously meant to counter our BuCUEs, and the Strike’s pilot compensated for the sand faster than I expected.” He drained his coffee mug. “Of course, he’s a Coordinator, so it’s really no surprise.”

DaCosta blinked. “Why would a Coordinator fight us?” It made no sense. Everyone knew that the Earth Forces high command detested Coordinators.

Waltfeld shrugged. “Seems the kid’s got some Natural friends on that ship; that’s why he stayed on.”

That did make sense, DaCosta conceded. He himself had no use for the hatred of Naturals some in ZAFT indulged in. “Sir, how do you know about this? According to the official report, the Strike’s pilot is a Natural.”

Waltfeld snorted. “I’ve got some sources, and it just so happens that not only is the Strike pilot a Coordinator, but he also happens to be Athrun Zala’s best friend.”

DaCosta went rigid. “Sir?”

“You heard right. Committee Chairman Zala tried to keep it quiet, but the kid told the rest of his team. Yzak Joule told his mother, and she saw to it that I found out.” Waltfeld shrugged again. “I don’t know why she did it, unless it’s because the kid -his name’s Kira Yamato, or something like that- is friends with her nephew.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter right now. We’re pulling back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sahara Desert, African Community, 16 February, C.E. 71

Murrue gazed thoughtfully at the screen. The intervention by resistance fighters had come as a welcome surprise, but now that the battle was over, they had to decide what to do next. Though the locals had been helpful, it remained to be seen how they would react to the Earth Forces.

“We should be safe,” Cagalli said over the comm.

Natarle looked up. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve spotted at least two people I know personally,” the princess explained. “The leader is Sahib Ashman, which means this is the Desert Dawn group. He’s a friend of my family.”

The lieutenant nodded. That made sense. “And the other one?”

“The big guy next to Sahib is Colonel Ledonir Kisaka, Orb Ground Forces,” Cagalli said. “He often acts as my bodyguard.”

That one caught everyone by surprise. “What would an Orb officer, a Colonel, no less, be doing out here?” Tolle wondered.

Cagalli shrugged. “He was born in Tassil, a town not far from here. He probably wanted to help his people.”

“What matters is that we can trust them,” Murrue said. “Will you be joining us outside?”

“I should,” Cagalli said. “Kisaka will probably try to drag me home, but when he finds out the Valkyrie is heading for Orb anyway, I think he’ll just insist on coming along when we leave.”

Murrue stood. “All right, then. Commander La Flaga will join us outside. I would like Lia and Alex to come along, as well; Brian and Kira can stand by in case ZAFT returns.” She nodded at Natarle. “Hold the fort while we’re gone.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This should be interesting. Alex had recognized Ledonir Kisaka instantly; anyone who had seen a picture of him would remember his face and build. There were quite a few people around him, but the only one who concerned their own group was the man standing next to Kisaka, Desert Dawn leader Sahib Ashman.

“I’ll have to talk to Kisaka privately,” Cagalli murmured. “He’s not going to be pleased that you guys know who I am.”

Lia rolled her eyes. “What, was Alex supposed to pretend he didn’t recognize you?”

The other girl shrugged. “He’s still not going to be happy.”

Murrue nodded a greeting as the three youngsters joined her and Mu. Cagalli stayed close to Alex, eying Kisaka nervously, while Lia moved to flank her aunt.

“Well,” the Archangel’s captain said at last. “I suppose we should thank you. You’re the Desert Dawn resistance group, correct?”

Sahib shot a glance at Cagalli. How much did she tell them? Kisaka’s reaction at the princess’s sudden appearance was not lost on him. “Correct. I go by the name of Sahib Ashman. You are the crew of the Earth Forces’ new warship, the Archangel, yes?”

Murrue nodded. “Some of us are. I am Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Archangel. I’m with the Eighth Fleet.”

“How’s that?” a younger guerrilla said skeptically. “Wasn’t the Eighth Fleet completely wiped out?”

“Admiral Halberton’s flagship survived, but the others were destroyed,” Murrue conceded. She gestured at Mu. “Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga, formerly of the Seventh Fleet.”

Sahib looked at Mu through narrowed eyes. “Ah, the Hawk of Endymion. It is an honor. Now, I believe you said only some of you were with the Earth Forces?”

“Correct.” Murrue laid a hand on her niece’s shoulder. “My niece Lia, Captain of the independent ship Valkyrie. Next to her is her friend Alex Strassmeier, their lead mobile suit pilot.”

“I see.” So Kisaka was right. “And the other girl?”

Murrue’s face twitched, just noticeably. “Cagalli Yula, a civilian Alex rescued at Heliopolis. She initially thought he was a ZAFT spy -he’s related to a Supreme Council member and has a cousin with the Le Creuset team- but that was smoothed over fairly quickly.”

“Indeed,” Kisaka said, speaking for the first time. These people clearly know who she is, but at least they have the good sense not to blurt out her identity.

Sahib grunted. “In any case, it is good that you know who we are, and we know who you are. You need not thank us; we fought against ZAFT because they are our enemy as well.”

“Perhaps we can discuss this further,” Murrue suggested.

The resistance leader considered that. “If you’re serious about talking, you should lower your guns first.” A nod at the quiescent mobile suits. ‘They should disarm, as well.”

Murrue nodded. “Very well.” She turned to the Strike. “Ensign Yamato, come down here!” She looked back at Sahib as Kira descended. “Ensign Kira Yamato, pilot of the Strike.” Her eyes narrowed. “He’s a first-generation Coordinator; if you really want to talk, please treat him with respect. He has gone through a lot for us.”

Sahib waved a hand. “You need not worry. We have Coordinators in our own group; the boy has nothing to fear.” He glanced at Cagalli. “I think some of us will have more to talk about than others.”

The princess winced as Kisaka gave her a stern look.

Desert Dawn base

It had taken lees than an hour to reach the Desert Dawn’s main camp. While Sahib conferred with the Archangel’s officers, Kira and Alex covered the ships with camo netting. The other mobile suits stayed in the hangars; they would have drawn too much attention.

Meanwhile, as the two groups mingled, Kisaka cornered his wayward charge.

“There was no way I could keep my identity secret,” Cagalli said testily. “Alex and I had met before; what was he supposed to do, pretend he didn’t recognize me?”

Kisaka shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. You’re a princess of Orb-“

“That’s why they let me onboard,” Cagalli shot back. “I had nowhere else to go; all the escape pods were full. They couldn’t afford to antagonize my father.”

The big man growled low in his throat. “So, you boarded a ship controlled by the nephew of a Supreme Council member.”

Cagalli bristled angrily. “Alex is my friend,” she half-snarled. “Besides, they’re heading for Orb anyway, and their ship is much better defended than anything you’d have access to here.”

Kisaka conceded the point. “All right,” he said at last. “However, I shall be joining you on the Valkyrie when it leaves the desert.”

The princess knew better than to argue. “Alex won’t mind. Just do not complain about how he treats me,” she added.

“Don’t worry.” Kisaka smiled. “It’s his ship; he makes the rules.”

“Actually, it’s Lia’s ship,” Alex corrected, joining them. “She’s the captain; I’m just the lead pilot.”

Kisaka snorted. “You’re more than that; Cagalli has made that abundantly clear. I must ask, though: why are you fighting against ZAFT? It seems an odd thing for someone with your connections.”

The Coordinator wearily massaged his temples. “Do you have any idea how tired I am of that question?” He did not wait for an answer. “Patrick Zala is a homicidal madman whose goal is nothing more and nothing less than the extinction of the Naturals. Is that a good enough reason?”

Kisaka nodded. “Again, I am sorry to ask you, but I had to be sure. I take my responsibilities seriously,” here he gave Cagalli an almost humorous look, “and given how headstrong our princess can be, I needed to be certain she was safe with you.”

Alex waved a hand. “I accept the apology, but it isn’t necessary. However, annoying it might be, you had no choice but to make sure of my own actions and -perhaps more importantly- my motives.” He saluted in the ZAFT manner. “Colonel Kisaka, you’re more than welcome to join us on the Valkyrie.”

Kisaka smiled and returned the salute. “Thank you for allowing me aboard, and for taking care of Cagalli.”

“No problem. Leaving aside the fact that getting on her father’s bad side is an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, I consider Cagalli a friend.” Alex’s expression hardened. “I never desert my friends.”

“This is getting weirder every day,” Kira said, shaking his head in wonder. “Less than a month ago, we were all going to school, not a care in the world. Now though…” He trailed off.

Flay squeezed his arm. “Now we’re all soldiers in a war we thought couldn’t touch us.”

“Yeah.” Kira glanced around their new ally’s base. “None of us wanted anything to do with the war, but after Le Creuset attacked our home, we didn’t have a choice. I just wish…” He swallowed hard. “I just wish Athrun could see that.”

Flay moved a little closer. The pain in Kira’s voice struck her to the heart.

“But that doesn’t matter right now,” he went on. “The Valkyrie intercepted some communications from Gibraltar; apparently the Vesalius was recalled to the PLANTs, so I won’t have to fight Athrun, at least not for a while.” He smiled humorlessly. “Instead, we get to fight the Desert Tiger.”

Tolle and Mir came up. “Lieutenant Badgiruel showed us some of the after-action reports on the Battle of Suez just after we landed; she said it would be better if we knew what we were up against. This guy is good,” Tolle said.

Kira nodded. “I saw those reports, too. He’s got a custom BuCUE that’s even more dangerous than the standard model.”

“It’s even worse than that,” Mu La Flaga put in.

The youngsters saluted him, surprised. “Commander?” Kira said.

Never big on formality, Mu waved away the salutes. “The resistance fighters spotted a new mobile suit just before we landed, and that Ahmed kid snapped a picture.” He held it up. “Take a look.”

They complied, joined by Sai and Kuzzey. The evil-looking machine bore a definite resemblance to the BuCUE, but anyone who saw it could tell that it was more dangerous in every way imaginable. It was bright orange, with a beam saber in the “mouth” and a double-barreled beam cannon where a BuCUE would have a railgun or missile pod.

“What is it?” Kira whispered.

“Waltfeld’s new machine, a TMF/A-803 LaGOWE,” Mu said grimly. “It’s based on his custom BuCUE, which tells you something.”

“Yeah, something really bad,” Tolle agreed sourly. “How’d the Desert Dawn get this photo?”

Mu shrugged. “Apparently, he had a run-in with an unidentified mobile suit; we think the pilot was a mercenary named Gai Murakumo.” He grimaced. “Anyway, we figured you guys should know. Especially you, Kira, since you might have to fight the thing somewhere down the line.”

It was Kira’s turn to grimace. BuCUEs were bad enough; this LaGOWE model was the stuff of nightmares. “How many are there?”

“As far as we know, just the one, at least here,” Mu said. “We think ZAFT’s been having trouble developing them, so Waltfeld just got one of the preproduction units.”

Small comfort, since Andrew Waltfeld’s skill in a BuCUE rivaled Rau Le Creuset’s in a GINN or CGUE. The thought of having to face the Desert Tiger in a brand-new mobile suit was not one Kira cared to contemplate. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

Mu grinned. “Hey, cheer up. You might not have to face it; we know it took some hits in that last fight.” He turned away. “Just relax for now.”

Surprisingly, none of them had any real trouble relaxing. Kira and Flay as well as Tolle and Mir slipped off as couples, while Sai regaled Kuzzey, who had spent his entire life in the ill-fated Heliopolis colony, with tales of life planet side.

Alex turned up about an hour later, Cagalli and Colonel Kisaka in tow. Lia Ramius met them, and the four chatted away, occasionally greeting one or another of their comrades. Kyle, who in addition to being completely nondescript had a fiendishly effective poker face, had engaged three of the resistance fighters in a card game.

Afterward, Kira and Alex both felt it was too good to last.

A piercing yell from one of the Desert Dawn sentries split the air. “The sky is burning!” he shouted. “It’s in the direction of Tassil!”

Instantly, the hideout was buzzing with activity. People ran every which way, loading jeeps and artillery trucks. Not that they expected to be able to do much; they knew perfectly well that the Desert Tiger had plenty of BuCUEs left.

Kira leapt to his feet. “I’d better get to the Strike.”

Flay gave him a quick kiss. “Be careful, Kira.”

“I will.”

The men and women of the Archangel were going to earn their pay with a vengeance.

Near-Earth orbit, Lagrange point 1

Another Moebius exploded under fire from the GINN’s assault rifle. Cursing under her breath, the pilot took a moment to survey the battlefield. It was not pretty; their one warship, the Laurasia-class Galvani, had been set upon by no fewer than four Earth Forces ships.

In short, their small team had been neatly mousetrapped.

This is insane, Shiho Hahnenfuss thought. No ZAFT team should have fallen prey to this kind of ambush. Yet it had happened, and Shiho suddenly found herself facing a trio of beam-equipped mobile armors. She raised her rifle, hoping desperately that she could get off the first shot…

And then an orange blur flashed past, spitting laser fire, and twisting around in a truly insane evasive maneuver. The Moebius units, caught flat-footed, vanished into flaming dust.

“You okay, mate?” Troy called, reeling in his newly upgraded gun barrels.

Shiho sighed with relief. “Thanks, Troy. I owe you one.”

“Don’t mention it- what the?”

A sinister-looking black mobile suit had appeared, seemingly out of the ether, in front of the bridge section of one of the Earth Forces ships. There was a flash of green light, a massive explosion, and then nothing but a debris field. An instant later, a brilliant red beam cored through the remaining three ships, one after the other.

Shiho new instantly who their rescuers had to be. “Those are two of the Earth Forces machines we captured,” she breathed. “The Blitz and the Aegis.” Deep inside, she wished the Duel had been there, too, but she knew it was impossible.

“I see them, mate,” Troy said.

“This is Commander Rau Le Creuset,” a new voice cut in. “We were passing through the area when we saw you in trouble. I trust the rescue was well-timed?”

Shiho heard Galvani’s captain expressing his thanks. After a moment, she keyed her own comm. “This is Shiho Hahnenfuss. Please allow me to express my gratitude for your support.”

“Ah, yes.” A masked face appeared on her screen. “As it happens, we’ve received orders regarding you. If you and your friend in the Zero would be so kind as to board the Vesalius, I will explain in person.”

Shiho felt her pulse quicken. Orders about her? “Yes, sir,” she said aloud.

“Good. Athrun and Nicol will escort you in.”

Vesalius, Le Creuset’s office

Athrun stood with Nicol as the two redcoats were ushered into the Commander’s office. The male, Troy Cadwallader, stood with confidence, as would be expected from the son of Oceania’s Prime Minister. Despite having just gotten out of a combat zone, his blond hair was perfectly combed, his blue eyes clear.

His female companion was another matter. Shiho Hahnenfuss was a striking young woman, with amethyst eyes and chocolate-brown hair that fell to midback, presumably tied when she wore a helmet. Like her Natural friend, she was extremely self-possessed, showing extraordinarily little sign of the excitement she had to be feeling.

“I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on,” Le Creuset said. He did not wait for an answer. “Put simply, your achievements have brought both of you to the attention of the Defense Committee itself.”

Both pilots straightened. “The Defense Committee?” Troy repeated.

“Correct.” Le Creuset handed each of them a sealed folder. “You two will be returning to the PLANTs with us; I want you to read those documents very carefully on the way.”

Shiho finally found her voice. “Sir, what is it the Committee wants us for?”

The masked man smiled. “You will be assigned to assist MMI in designing two new weapons systems. Troy, your rare sense of spatial awareness has earned you a spot on the team developing a variation of the Zero’s wired gun barrels.”

He looked at Shiho again. “You, on the other hand, are to assist in the development of a new variety of CGUE, based on data from the captured Earth Forces mobile suits. The details are in those folders.”

“Sir!” The two youngsters saluted in unison. They did not know precisely what was in store for them, but they did know it would not be boring.

Chapter 10: Endless Sands

Skies over the Libyan desert, 14 February, C.E. 71

Time to see if these reentry cocoons work as advertised, Alex thought grimly.

While it had the same purpose as the ablative gel that some warships had, the reentry cocoon worked differently. Instead of a fluid that burned off, it covered the mobile suit in a semisolid sheath which was shed upon landing. The cocoon left the optics uncovered, allowing the machine’s pilot to see what he was doing. So far, it was working.

The Strike, lacking such a cocoon, was not so fortunate. Alex had tried to contact Kira several times in the past few minutes, but he had not gotten a response.

This is not good. Alex keyed his comm. “Archangel, I can’t reach Kira. Have you had any luck?”

Mir’s face appeared on his screen. “No good, Alex. He’s not answering.” She looked away briefly. “Since the Strike can’t get to us, we’re going to get him.”

“That means you’ll miss your descent point.”

“We know,” Murrue put in, “but we have no choice. We cannot afford to lose the Strike.”

Alex wanted to disagree, but he knew they were right. “Understood. There’s nothing more I can do at this point, so I’ll head back to my ship.”

“Understood. Be careful.”

Even as he guided his machine back to the Valkyrie, Alex kept an eye on the Strike. Though he was not responding to his friends’ attempts to communicate, Kira was clearly conscious enough to maneuver his mobile suit. As the Archangel moved to catch him, Kira flipped the Strike end-for-end, bringing his shield into position, and landed on the ship’s forward deck.

He will be all right. Knowing that his people could not open the catapults, Alex mirrored Kira’s maneuvers, landing on his own ship’s deck.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

“This is Alaska,” Mu La Flaga said, pointing at a blue area on the wall map. “And this is where we are: right smack in the middle of ZAFT-controlled territory. We couldn’t have picked a worse place to land.”

Murrue sighed. “We didn’t have much choice. If had not done it, we would have lost the Strike, and that was something we couldn’t afford.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Do we know who the local ZAFT commander is?”

Mu grimaced. “Alex tells me that Andrew Waltfeld is in charge.”

The captain winced. “From what I’ve heard, Waltfeld is to land combat what Le Creuset is to space.”

“That’s about right,” Mu agreed. “Alex met him once, about a year ago. Apparently, he is a decent guy, unlike Le Creuset.” He grimaced again. “Not that it’ll help us much; we are a warship, after all.” Sighing, he sat across from Murre. “So, is everything all right?”

She nodded. “Kira’s in the Infirmary; the heat got to him, apparently.”

“Good to hear, but I was talking about the deputy commander.”

Murrue knew exactly what he was talking about: her exchange with Natarle Badgiruel just before the Strike and Zero launched. “Everything’s all right.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Mu stood and headed for the door. “I’m going to go check on Kira, then get some sleep.” He turned back and wagged his finger. “You should get some shuteye, too; a commanding officer mustn’t let herself get burned out, not good.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex leaned back in his chair, stifling a groan. He and his friends had made it down safely, and reports from the Archangel suggested that Kira would be fine. Plus, Mu La Flaga would be back in action once Murdoch’s people got the pair of FX-550 Skygraspers they had received from Eighth Fleet up and running.

All that was fine, but there was some bad to go with the good. They had landed in a desert, which only Brian Kilgore was happy about. Only two of their machines, Brian’s desert-adapted Scorpion and Alex’s flight-capable Stormbird, were ready for action. And, to top it off, the desert they had landed in was at the center of Andrew Waltfeld’s sphere of operation.

Besides which, Alex was plain tired.

“All right,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t see what else we can do tonight. Kira almost died of heatstroke, so the Strike is out of action for the time being. As for us, until we can rework the other machines’ OS’s, all we have are the Stormbird and the Scorpion.”

“You’re right,” Lia agreed, decidedly unhappy. “It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to get the other three machines operable again.”

“We may not have a couple of days,” Alex said sourly. “We’re up against the Desert Tiger, people. You think Rau Le Creuset was bad, Waltfeld’s worse. Trust me; I have met him, and I can tell you that he is every bit as ruthless as old metal mask. The only difference is that he tries to minimize collateral damage.”

Cagalli grimaced. “That’s not going to help us much. One of Orb’s top ground forces officers, Colonel Ledonir Kisaka -he often acts as my bodyguard- was born not too far from here. His hometown of Tassil and the city of Banadiya are the only settlements within a hundred kilometers.”

Kyle Perry snorted. “You have a gift for understatement, Cagalli. We are not going to pull the sort of stunt Ensign -excuse me, Lieutenant- Badgiruel did with Lacus Clyne and use civilians as a shield. I don’t see what-” He paused suddenly with an arrested expression, then turned to Cagalli. “Aren’t there a couple of resistance groups out here?”

She straightened, seeing immediately where he was going and chagrined that she had not thought of it. “There’s at least one, the Desert Dawn. The leader, Sahib Ashman, is an old friend of my family.”

“That could be helpful.” Alex rubbed his eyes again. “Anything else?” General headshakes. “Then I guess we’re finished for now.”

Lia and Kyle got up to leave, exchanging knowing smiles when the princess remained where she was. Cagalli noticed but ignored them; she did not care what they thought. She had had few enough friends, given her upbringing, and Alex’s attitude was a breath of fresh air. He and Kira always treated her like a normal person instead of some stuck-up princess.

Alex seldom remembered that she was a princess. Not that he ever forgot, exactly, it simply was not at the forefront of his attention. When he looked at her, he saw a friend, not an Orb noble or an officer (despite her youth, Cagalli held the rank of commodore in the Orb forces).

“How are you feeling?” Cagalli asked suddenly, breaking into his thoughts.

He tried to give her a sardonic look, but somehow could not manage it. “Aside from being more exhausted than I’ve been in three years, fine.” He stood and retrieved a large thermos from his cabinet. “That battle was a far cry from our previous engagements,” Alex went on, pouring two cups of coffee and handing one to her. “I knew Le Creuset would be out for blood, so I wasn’t surprised.”

Cagalli sipped appreciatively. While not much of a coffee drinker, she had not been able to completely avoid it, as most military forces, Orb’s included, seemed to run almost exclusively on caffeine. “Your cousin’s injuries must not have been too bad, since the Duel was right in the thick of it.”

Alex snorted. “Never underestimate Yzak’s stubbornness,” he advised her. “I established visual communications with him twice during the battle, and I got a good look at him. He had bandages over a good chunk of his face; if I had to guess, I would say Kira’s attack made something in the Duel’s cockpit explode, probably an instrument panel. Whatever it was, it shattered Yzak’s faceplate, gashing his face pretty bad.”

She winced. “No wonder he was yelling.”

“It also means he’s going to be going all out on the Strike from now on,” Alex said darkly. “Yzak’s nowhere near as vindictive as Bartlett, but Kira humiliated him in that fight. That is something he can’t live with.” He shook his head. “I pray that doesn’t get him killed.”

Cagalli stared at him. “Are you saying-“

“I’m not suggesting Kira would kill him,” Alex said, waving his hand. “No, what worries me is his temper. Yzak’s good at what he does -he does not wear the red uniform for nothing- but he tends to let his emotions run wild. That could all too easily make him do something very stupid.”

She saw his point. Strong emotion of any kind was a weakness in combat.

“In any case, it’s not going to matter for a while yet,” Alex said. “Judging by the trajectories, he and Dearka Elsman landed at or near Gibraltar, and I don’t see them letting him out until his wounds have healed.”

“Unless he does the same thing he did before the last battle,” Cagalli said.

Alex shook his head. “Unlikely. Rau Le Creuset tends to be permissive with his subordinates; recall that he gave Athrun permission to try to get Kira to defect. The command staff at Gibraltar won’t be so easy to deal with, and they’ve got better medical facilities than a warship could possibly have.”

There was no denying that. Cagalli did not know all that much about ZAFT, but she had a hard time believing that there were very many doctors in their forces who would permit a repeat of Yzak’s last action. Even Coordinators, with their greater resiliency, had their limits, and Yzak Joule had very nearly exceeded them.

Of course, talk of medical facilities reminded Cagalli of her other favorite Coordinator. “How’s Kira doing?”

Alex shrugged. “Not too bad, considering what he just went through. He is unconscious with a high fever, courtesy of reentry conditions. Our ship’s doctor is over there right now, and he assures me that Kira is in no danger.” His lip twisted wryly. “Frankly, I’m amazed he was allowed in. Flay’s watching Kira like a hawk.”

Cagalli chuckled. “You think they’re together?”

Her friend snorted gently. “She had a fairly explosive breakup with Sai a couple of days ago, she’s changed her mind about Coordinators, and Kira’s been interested in her for the past year. I can’t think of any other reason for her to be watching him that closely.” He stood and moved to the window, gazing out at the Valkyrie’s almost-sister ship. “He needs someone like that.”

The princess agreed. She herself had no interest in Kira beyond friendship and Flay had always struck her as a nice girl, so it fit. “I’m gonna go check on him. If Flay will let me,” she added slyly.

Alex laughed softly. “Oh, she’ll let you. She knows perfectly well that you’re not interested in Kira in that way.” He returned to his desk and punched up a file on the terminal. “Go see Kira; I can hold the fort here.”

Seeing the look of intense concentration on his face, Cagalli did not bother saying goodbye. She stood and headed for the door, glancing at the picture of Alex’s family on the way out. Fourteen-year-old Alex stood near the center, one arm around his sister, Andrea. Yzak Joule stood on Alex’s other side, his broad grin a marked contrast to the attitude he had displayed since Heliopolis.

Cagalli shook her head. Now they are on opposite sides in a war. Suppressing a sigh, she stepped into the corridor, sealing the hatch behind her.

Archangel, infirmary

Even though there was only one patient, the infirmary was more crowded than usual. Kira’s classmates, worried after the events of reentry, had all come to check on him. Flay and Mir stood at his bedside, while Sai, Kuzzey, and Tolle gathered around the ship’s doctor.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he was saying. “Your friend is in no danger at this point.”

“So, he’ll be okay?” Tolle pressed.

The doctor shrugged. “If he survived reentry, then I don’t see this fever getting him. Did you hear what sort of temperature extremes he was exposed to in that cockpit?”

“We hadn’t,” Sai said, puzzled.

“Well, I can assure you none of us would have survived it,” the doctor responded. “This fever is nothing compared to that.”

Vincent Lockwood, the doctor from Valkyrie, agreed. “We Coordinators are extremely resilient,” he said, checking the IV tube in Kira’s right arm. “For example, we don’t catch fatal infections; our immune systems are too powerful. We have greater physical strength and can absorb more punishment in a fight.” His lip twisted. “Some say that we can acquire more knowledge, as well. I’ve never believed it, personally; since we humans, Natural or Coordinator, use so little of our mental capacity, I don’t believe that there’s any way to tell.”

“I heard you’ve been trying to find a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities,” Kuzzey commented.

Lockwood nodded. “Some people -notably Patrick Zala- claim that it’s impossible. Obviously, I do not buy that. Genetic engineering continues to advance.”

“But why are you doing it?” Mir asked. “And what about the Torino Protocol?”

Lockwood shrugged. “You might say I’m trying to level the playing field. Aside from psychopaths like Blue Cosmos, the Natural side of the genetics issue is based on a combination of jealousy and fear. Remove that, and you’ve just got the lunatics who wouldn’t be taken seriously at all were it not for their violent antics.”

“As for the Torino Protocol…” He snorted. “That was a dead letter from its inception. With something like genetic engineering technology, there is no way to keep it contained. It will spread and grow more sophisticated. The only thing you can do is make whatever use of it you can.”

Flay barely even heard. She was focused on the unconscious Coordinator on the bed before her. Kira’s temperature was still far higher than it should have been, though it was coming down, albeit too slowly for Flay’s comfort.

Of course, there might well have been more to the fever than just reentry heat. Judging by the way he was tossing and turning on the bed, Kira was in the grip of some nightmare.

Flay gently wiped the sweat from his forehead. If someone had told her just a month ago that she would fall in love with a Coordinator, she would have laughed (or slapped the speaker). Yet it had happened, and there was nothing Flay could do about it, even if she wanted to, which she did not.

Kira, hang in there, okay? I will be here, no matter what.

“How is he?”

Flay glanced up. It was the Orb princess, Cagalli. “His fever is coming down,” she said, suppressing a twinge of jealousy. She knew it was stupid; Kira and Cagalli were close, but everyone on both ships knew that it was more of a brother-sister relationship.

Besides, anyone with a brain can tell she is interested in Alex, even if neither of them realizes it.

Cagalli sat on a nearby stool. “You really care for him, don’t you.”? It was not a question.

Flay nodded. “Yeah.” She sighed. “I was engaged to Sai, but that was because of my father…”

Cagalli smiled wryly. “I know what you mean.” When the redhead gave her a surprised look, she chuckled. “I was briefly engaged to Yuuna Roma Seiran. My father broke it off when it became obvious that I hated the guy.”

“Oh. Him.” Flay shuddered.

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. “You’ve met him?”

“No, but I heard my father talk about his family. He said they’re all lowlifes.”

“That’s about right,” Cagalli agreed. “I remember the party where I first met Alex and his sister. Yuuna was there, and Alex didn’t enjoy the experience.”

Flay chuckled appreciatively. “I’ll bet Yuuna didn’t either.”

The princess shrugged. “As far as I could tell, Alex didn’t say a word; you know what he’s like. Andrea actually tried talking to Yuuna; when I asked her about it, she said the conversation made her feel like she was scuba diving in a septic tank.”

The image was disgusting, but appropriate. She did not dwell on it for long, though. “I never thought I’d fall for a Coordinator,” Flay said softly, gently stroking the pilot’s face. “My father told me they were monsters, that their existence went against what nature intended.”

“Did your father know any Coordinators?”

Flay shrugged. “I don’t know. Kira’s the first one I’ve really gotten to know; yeah, I knew about Alex first, but he’s kind of hard to figure out.” She touched Kira’s face again. “I realize now that not all Coordinators are evil. Sure, there’s Rau Le Creuset and Patrick Zala, but there’s also people like Kira and Alex, and the Captain’s niece.”

“Yeah.” Cagalli nodded. “I’ve never cared what someone’s genes look like.” She stood. “I’d better get back to the Valkyrie. Let me know when he wakes up, okay?”

Flay waved, not taking her eyes off Kira. “You got it.”

Vesalius, pilots’ ready room

The view of the hangar had changed. Vesalius had started the battle with the Aegis and four GINNs; now only the Aegis remained, the GINNs having fallen to the Valkyrie’s Gundams. With the destruction of the Gamow, Nicol had been forced to land his Blitz on the Vesalius.

Athrun sighed. There should have been one more, Kira Yamato’s Strike Gundam. Kira was a Coordinator; he should not have been fighting for the Earth Forces. And he had clearly joined the enemy for real now; there was no other reason for him to have been flying in the last fight.

He clenched his fists. Kira, why? Don’t you realize this means I have to kill you?

The hatch slid open. “Ah, so there you are,” Nicol said, coming to a stop next to Athrun. “I’ve got some good news,” he went on, smiling. “Yzak and Dearka landed on Earth safely.”

Athrun blew out a breath. “Good. At least something went right.”

“Yeah,” Nicol agreed. “No ETA on their return, though. From what I have been told, they’re going to be staying at Gibraltar for a while.”

“At least they’re safe.” Athrun raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Yzak’s wounded; it’s not still a problem for him, is it?”

Nicol shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry too much. Remember, even in the last round he was able to put up a good fight.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Athrun fell silent.

Nicol looked at his friend in concern. “You okay?” No response. “Athrun?”

The blue-haired pilot shook himself. “Huh? Yeah, I guess so.” He sighed. “I was thinking about Kira.”

Nicol nodded in understanding. Of all the surprises to come out of the Heliopolis operation, the biggest was that Athrun and Yzak both had close connections to the enemy. Alex Strassmeier was by far the more surprising of the two, since he was Yzak’s cousin and a well-known PLANT loyalist.

Kira, an Orb citizen, was more understandable. His only connection to the PLANTs was his friendship with Athrun, and the people he was trying to protect were also from Orb (aside from Flay Allster, who was unknown to ZAFT). After speaking briefly with him during the Artemis battle, Nicol was inclined to agree that Kira was an innocent dupe.

Not that I am going to kill him if I can help it. Any friend of Athrun’s is a friend of mine. “It must be hard,” Nicol said.

“Kira’s a Coordinator; why would he be fighting for the Earth Forces?” Athrun said, half to himself. “He must have officially joined up; he wouldn’t have been out there otherwise.”

“Maybe his friends decided to stay on, too,” Nicol suggested. He laid a hand on Athrun’s shoulder. “Hey, nobody’s saying you have to kill him. He’ll come around sooner or later.” A shrug. “Maybe his friends will, too.”

Athrun did not answer right away. “Maybe you’re right,” he said at last. “I’ve met Kira’s parents, you know. They don’t care what someone’s genes look like.”

“Why’d they make Kira a Coordinator?”

Athrun shrugged. “He’s never said. Actually, I don’t think he knows.” He closed his eyes briefly. “The only way I can see him or his friends coming over to us is if Orb declares for the PLANTs, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Nicol looked at him curiously. “Who’s that?”

Athrun grimaced. “Much as I hate to admit it, Strassmeier has a point. I do not think that my father wants to exterminate the Naturals, but that does not mean he likes them. And” he went on reluctantly, “he does not care if a Natural is connected to the Earth Forces or not. He hates them all.”

All too true, unfortunately. Zala might not have openly called for genocide, but that did not mean he pretended to like Naturals.

“Any idea what the recall order is for?” Nicol asked, changing the subject.

Athrun frowned. “I think it has something to do with some new operation. And since Commander Le Creuset is the best, we have right now…”

Nicol brightened. “That makes sense. I’ll go see how they’re doing with the Blitz; got to be ready.” He pushed off, “swimming” toward the hatch.

The Aegis’ pilot remained behind, once again absorbed in his own thoughts.

Valkyrie, exercise area

Some people, knowing that a warship did not have mass to waste, wondered why such a vessel would have a well-equipped gymnasium. The answer was simple: even though they were not expected to engage in close combat, naval officers and crew still needed to stay in shape. Besides, there was always the possibility that they would have to repel boarders.

I will bet Alex designed this part of the ship personally, Cagalli thought. You can see his obsession with efficiency all over it. It was not the largest gym she had ever been in, but it was better arranged than most. An exercise mat dominated the center of the floor. Weightlifting equipment was visible in one corner, with a couple of treadmills opposite them. All of it was, of course, useless in null-grav environments.

Naturally, the place was in use. Alex made a point of exercising regularly, and today was no exception. He had removed his boots and jacket, leaving him in black pants and a t-shirt. He was not particularly bulky (Alex despised the bodybuilder look) rather, he had more of a wiry look; still muscular but kept in check.

Catching sight of Cagalli, Alex stopped in the center of the mat. “What brings you here?”

“I was looking for you,” she said. “Thought you’d like to know that Kira’s doing okay.”

His expression did not change much -it seldom did- but Cagalli knew him well enough to spot his relief. “That’s good. I didn’t think he was likely to suffer any permanent harm, but you never know.”

Cagalli abruptly noticed that Alex was sweating. He must have been at this for a while. “You’re obsessed, you know that?” she said, gesturing to the room at large.

He shrugged. “I had to make sure I hadn’t lost anything in the past three weeks; it’s hard to practice martial arts in a null-grav environment.” He looked at her speculatively. “If you’ve had military training, I’ll bet it included hand-to-hand work.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah, why?”

Alex flexed his prosthetic arm. “Up for a bout? A kata is not the same as taking on a live opponent. Besides, I want to see just how good you are.”

Cagalli stepped onto the mat and slid into a half-crouch. “You’re on.” Without another word, she lunged at him, aiming a low sweep kick at his legs. (Dramatic though a kick to the head might have been, Cagalli knew as well as anyone that it would be a foolish move. It would be far too easy to grab her leg, thus turning the tables.)

Alex jumped over her leg, then slid forward, chopping his left hand at her right elbow. Cagalli, displaying incredibly fast reflexes for a Natural, dodged to her left, grabbed his arm at his wrist, and swept with her left foot, slamming his ankles together and dropping him to the mat.

He picked himself up. “You’re good,” he said, breathing heavily. “Better than anyone I’ve faced since Bartlett.”

Cagalli felt her eyes widen at the look on his face: he was grinning. Not the thin smile she had grown used to in the past three weeks, but a huge, genuine grin. It was as if all the trials he had gone through since 68 had not happened. She was seeing him the way Lia Ramius and Yzak Joule had before the Mandelbrot Incident.

“It’s been a while since I had this much fun,” Alex went on. “But it’s not over yet!” He spun around, aiming a kick at her stomach.

The princess, however, had not run out of tricks. She let the blow connect, then grabbed his ankle as she fell. He went down with a startled sounding yelp, landing flat on his back.

He slowly sat up. “I think that’s enough.” He pushed himself to his feet, then held out a hand. “Thanks. I needed that.”

Normally Cagalli would have ignored such a gesture, but not now. “You needed someone to try to beat you up?” she said dryly.

“I needed a release for my frustration that didn’t involve killing people,” he replied. “I hope you didn’t mind providing it.”

She grinned. “Don’t worry about it; it was fun.”

Alex toweled off his sweat-damp hair. “I guess you don’t often have a chance to just let go back home.”

“Not really,” Cagalli agreed with a grimace. “I’m actually glad I wound up here instead of in an escape pod. It’s been a while since a could just be myself.”

He snorted. “I can imagine; we don’t have nobility per se in the PLANTs, but the Supreme Council is the next best thing.”

“Hey, guys,” a new voice said.

The two looked at the hatch. Mu La Flaga stood watching them, an odd look on his face.

I am not sure I want to know what he is thinking. “Hello, Mu,” Alex said. “Something up?”

Mu nodded. “Captain Ramius wanted me to come fetches you; something about picking your brain.”

The Coordinator shook his head in resignation. “Sure, though I’m not sure how much use it’ll be. I have not been on-planet in four years, and all my previous trips have been to Orb. I don’t know squat about deserts,” he added with an air of distaste. “Sure, I met Andrew Waltfeld. Once.”

Mu did not reply. He liked Alex; the kid was just the sort of fan he wanted: someone who appreciated his skills, but without the sycophantic hero worship he encountered all too often in Earth Forces rookies. It helped that Alex was a skilled pilot in his own right; from what Mu had seen, there were not many pilots in ZAFT who could take him.

Alex sighed. “Lead on, Mu.”

Archangel, infirmary

“Kira?”

Kira Yamato groaned softly, stirring on the bed. Where am I? He groaned again, forcing his eyes open. His first sight was a welcome one, a red-haired figure in a pink uniform. Flay. “Flay…where am I?”

She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re in the infirmary, Kira. We’ve landed on Earth safely.”

He sighed in relief. “That’s good to hear. Where did we land? And what about the Valkyrie?”

“We’re in the African Community, in the desert. And the Valkyrie is fine, too.” Flay giggled suddenly. “Alex and Cagalli tried to beat each other senseless a few minutes ago.”

Kira managed a weak chuckle. “Yeah, I can see that.” He tried to sit up and winced. Not a good idea. “Flay, what happened? The last thing I remember is the Duel aiming at the refugees’ shuttle…”

She caressed his cheek. “The refugees are safe; I heard Alex destroyed the Duel’s rifle before his cousin could fire.”

He sighed with relief. “Thanks. I… don’t think I could bear it if they were killed.” Flay handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down gratefully. “What about the ZAFT forces? Did any of them catch up?”

Mir appeared behind Flay. “The Duel and the Buster were forced into reentry, but they’re nowhere near us. The Valkyrie’s people projected their landing point as at or near the Gibraltar base.”

In other words, they were not in range to attack the Archangel, but they were still too close for comfort. Gibraltar was second only to Carpentaria as the most heavily defended ZAFT base on Earth. It had massive, fixed defenses, augmented with mobile suits. It was confirmed that Gibraltar Base had the airborne AMF-101 DINN, the underwater UMF-4A GhOON, and the land-based TMF/A-802 BuCUE.

That was bad enough, but there were rumors of more powerful units, the new UMF-5 ZnO, and the even newer TMF/A-803 LaGOWE. The LaGOWE was cause for concern, both because it was optimized for desert warfare, and because it was thought to be based on Andrew Waltfeld’s custom BuCUE.

“That’s enough for now,” Flay said, gently pushing Kira down onto the bed. “You need to rest.”

He did not resist. The Archangel and the Valkyrie had landed safely, albeit far from their original destination, the refugees were safe, and he was with the girl he had loved since the day they met. As far as Kira was concerned, for now, everything was fine.

Flay smiled. “You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

Gibraltar Base

This just gets better and better. First, I am humiliated by some rookie from Orb, then my own cousin stops me from taking out a bunch of Earth Forces troops.

Yzak snorted bitterly. The pain in his face was gone, but not the pain in his heart. He had been defeated by someone not even trained in warfare, and then his own cousin had stopped him from getting his revenge. He was not sure which was worse.

Alex, why in blazes did you stop me from taking out that troop transport? They had nothing to do with the legged ship, so why did you care?

He shook his head. Trying to puzzle out his cousin’s motives was pointless right now. He could do that later once they had taken out the legged ship. For now, much as Yzak hated to admit it, he had to rest and recover. He was no good to anyone injured.

Suddenly, he could not take it anymore. Standing, he reached up and tore the bandages off his face, then faced the mirror. The reflection had not changed much since he had last looked, back on the now-destroyed Gamow. There was only one difference: a wicked scar, running from his forehead down the right side of his face, ending under the corner of his eye.

Yzak felt his cheeks burn. Losing to a rookie was humiliating enough; the scar merely compounded it. “You’re going down, Yamato,” he snarled. “On my honor, I swear I’ll bring you down.”

Archangel, Murrue’s office

Alex followed Mu into the office, wishing vaguely that he were elsewhere. “You wanted to see me?”

Murrue nodded. “With your connections, you know more about ZAFT than we do. I thought I’d pick your brain.”

He snorted. “I’ll do what I can, but that won’t be much. Like I told Mu, I don’t know squat about deserts.”

“But you do know Andrew Waltfeld,” the newly promoted Lieutenant Badgiruel put in.

Alex gave her a cool look. “I met him once, just after that martial arts tournament,” he reminded her, then turned to Murrue. “What is it you want to know?”

“What can we expect from here on?” Badgiruel asked bluntly.

He regarded the XO through narrowed eyes. Now I see. You think I am intelligence gold mine. “How should I know?”

“You’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew,” she said. “You moved in the highest circles in the PLANTs.”

“Which means exactly nothing,” Alex shot back. “You’re assuming that nepotism is rampant in the homeland. Well, let me tell you: nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, all four of Le Creuset’s Gundam pilots are the offspring of Supreme Council members, but they do not owe their positions to that. He accepts only the best, and Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Athrun Zala all wear the red uniform. I think even you know what that means.”

Murrue decided that it was time to intervene before someone (most likely Badgiruel) exploded. “What can you tell us, then?”

With a not-quite-visible effort, Alex reigned in his temper. “For the most part, things you almost certainly already know. We are faced with a man who is very nearly Le Creuset’s equal, even if he isn’t quite as ruthless.” He traced a line on the map. “We dare not go north, lest we come within range of Gibraltar…”

For the next hour, the three officers discussed their strategy, Alex tossing in an occasional comment. More and more, he was wishing he were back on his own ship, or at least with Kira and company, people who understood him.

“One more thing,” Badgiruel said, breaking into his thoughts. “Why are you still with us? I understood that you would be heading directly for Orb.”

Alex did not even look at her. “That was the plan, but our schedule was altered when we learned you would be shorthanded. Since we have friends on this ship, we decided to accompany you as long as our courses coincided.” He tapped the map. “Your best course to Alaska would take you past Orb.”

“Convenient,” was all the XO said.

Alex gave one of his minimalist shrugs. “It was also a favor for Admiral Halberton. He’s the one noble wolf in that pack of hyenas.”

Badgiruel bristled. “And what about your Supreme Council?” she demanded. “The same people who scattered the Neutron-jammers all over the planet, causing an energy crisis and widespread famine. The same people who attacked Heliopolis, resulting in its collapse.”

Slowly, Alex turned to face her. “Patrick Zala is an anomaly,” he said icily. “My aunt is deluded. As for the N-jammers, they were needed to prevent a repeat of the Bloody Valentine.”

He took a step forward. “And when it comes to relative morals, let me straighten you out, Lieutenant. Chairman Clyne only wants freedom and security for the PLANTs. The Earth Forces’ high command, by contrast, is made up almost exclusively of murderous thugs the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of Adolf Hitler.”

Alex stalked to the door, then paused, turning slightly. “You should be grateful for Zala’s antics. Otherwise, I would be one of those trying to destroy you.” Then he was gone.

Badgiruel sat heavily in her chair. “What is wrong with him?”

Mu snorted. “He’s from the PLANTs, Lieutenant; did you really expect him to say nice things about the Earth Forces?”

“No, but I didn’t expect him to compare the high command to Nazis, either!”

“Then you haven’t been paying very close attention.” The Hawk of Endymion sipped from a coffee mug. “Everybody knows that Coordinators aren’t exactly welcome in our forces; we’ve been over that. Add stuff like the blockade and the Mandelbrot Incident, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.”

The lieutenant looked skeptical. “Are you saying he’ll attack us?”

“Of course not.” Mu shook his head emphatically. “His best friend is the Captain’s niece, remember. Besides, like he said, he has friends on this ship, people like Kira and Flay. He’s not going to turn against them.”

Murrue sighed. “Commander La Flaga is right. Alex won’t attack us.” She closed her eyes. “We just have to hope that extends to other Earth Forces units, as well.”

That gave the others pause. Alex Strassmeier was a man of his word; no one present doubted that. However, with his passionate hatred for the Earth Forces, there was no guarantee that other units would be safe once the two ships separated.

Even Badgiruel did not believe for an instant that Alex had anything against Naturals. He got along well with Kira’s friends, and he made no secret of his personal admiration for Mu. And, of course, everyone noticed how he got along with the Orb princess.

“We can only hope,” Murrue said at last.

No one argued with that.

Kira’s quarters

Kira set the photo on the table next to his bunk. Some nights have thought it odd, as the photo was of four young men in the red uniform of a ZAFT elite. No one on this ship so much as twitched, though, because of the connection Kira had to one of those young men.

“Which one is your friend?” Flay asked.

Kira pointed at the blue-haired figure on the far right. “That’s Athrun. He hasn’t changed much since I last saw him.”

The redhead nodded. “And the others are his teammates?”

“Right. The guy with green hair is Nicol Amalfi, pilot of the Blitz.” Kira sighed. “I actually spoke to him at Artemis. He asked me why I was fighting them; I said that I was just protecting my friends. I still am,” he added.

Flay nodded again. “That must be Alex’s cousin,” she said, looking closely at Yzak. “They look a lot alike.”

“Alex told me that both of their parents commented on that,” Kira agreed. “Their personalities aren’t the same though. You know how Alex is, cold and methodical.” Flay nodded. “Well, I can tell Yzak isn’t that way just by how he fights. The last couple of times I faced the Duel, he just went nuts. Nothing like Alex, or Athrun…” He trailed off.

Flay wrapped her arms around him. “This is hard for you, isn’t it?”

He sighed again. “We’ve been friends for so long, and now we have to fight each other. I hate it!”

She tightened her grip. “It’ll be all right,” she whispered. “You’ll see him again.”

Kira felt his tension slowly drain away. “I know. Thanks.”

“Any time.” Flay smiled and kissed him.

The Archangel and the Valkyrie had landed safely on Earth, and their people had nearly recovered from the battles in space. Even with the rough edges, they felt ready to take anything ZAFT’s ground forces could throw at them.

Hopefully, they were right, for not far away was Andrew Waltfeld, the famed Desert Tiger. Universally acknowledged as ZAFT’s best ground soldier (and famous for his obsession with coffee), he could easily be an even greater threat than Rau Le Creuset.

It remained to be seen if the two ships could tame the Tiger…

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. “Admiral 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.

Chapter 8: No Turning Back

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.

Archangel, bridge

“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.”

“Captain-“

“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.

Gamow, infirmary

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.

Valkyrie, cafeteria

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.”

Archangel, hangar

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.

Corridor

“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.

Vesalius, bridge

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.”

Murrue’s office

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.”

“Indeed.”

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.”

crew quarters

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.

Vesalius/Gamow, hangar

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!

Menelaos, bridge

“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.”

Valkyrie, bridge

“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!”

Archangel, hangar

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.

“Kira!”

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.

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!”

Chapter 6: Separate Ways

Archangel, bridge, 6 February, C.E. 71

Acting Crewman Kuzzey Buskirk sat up as his board beeped at him. Hmm? A signal? He tweaked his controls, adjusting the gain, then looked down at the Captain. “We’re receiving a signal, ma’am. Header indicates it’s from the Montgomery, assigned to Eighth Fleet.”

Murrue sighed with relief. “That’s Admiral Halberton’s command. We’re almost there.”

“You are, at least,” Lia said from her own bridge.

Murrue raised her eyebrows at her niece. “I take it you have a longer journey in mind?”

The younger Ramius nodded. “We’re making for Orb, since we’ve got the princess with us.” Behind her, Cagalli Yula Athha rolled her eyes. “Besides, as far as we are concerned, Orb is the only sane nation left on Earth. No offense, Ensign,” she added, glancing at Badgiruel.

Badgiruel shook her head. “None taken, Ms. Ramius; I may have my doubts about who was responsible for the abduction of Strassmeier’s sister, but I don’t blame either of you for feeling as you do. Particularly since your friend is a native of the PLANTs.”

“That reminds me.” Murrue shifted her gaze to Cagalli. “Miss Cagalli, how are we supposed to handle your presence? Given the role you have on the Valkyrie, you’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

“When I’m out on my own, I drop the last part of my name,” the princess responded. “I’ll go by Cagalli Yula.”

Murrue nodded. “That should work.”

“Another message from the Montgomery, ma’am,” Kuzzey said. “Vice Foreign Minister George Allster is on board.”

“Tell him that his daughter is safe,” Murrue said. “Kira saw to that.”

Behind Lia and to her right, Alex Strassmeier snorted. “I’m not sure how grateful he’ll be,” he said. “The Vice Foreign Minister’s opinion of Coordinators isn’t exactly a secret. Which explains Flay’s former attitude; she practically absorbed it through osmosis.”

Murrue shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope Flay can convince him otherwise. She and Kira have become fairly close since we got out of Artemis.”

“You might prove more of a problem,” Badgiruel put in. Alex raised an eyebrow questioningly, and she shrugged. “I intend no offense, but as you yourself have pointed out -several times- you are related to Ezalia Joule.”

Alex nodded. “Believe me, Ensign, I am acutely aware of the potential difficulty. I’m not a big fan of the vice minister, but I’m perfectly capable of restraining myself.” For a moment, his face had a wry look. “For Flay’s sake, if nothing else; I never thought I’d say this, but I consider her a friend.”

Murrue shook her head, bemused. He is certainly changed in the past couple of weeks. She was inclined to agree with her niece’s belief that Cagalli was responsible for the change. Alex still seldom showed emotion in public -by now, everyone knew why- but at the same time, he seemed more approachable somehow.

And if he can warm up to someone like Flay Allster… She glanced over her shoulder at Kuzzey. “That reminds me. Given that we have several Coordinators with us, we should probably have Flay present when we speak to her father. As Alex just pointed out, Vice Minister Allster isn’t very fond of Coordinators.”

Neither was Montgomery captain Koopman, as it happened. Much as some people -notably Natarle Badgiruel- would have liked to deny it, anti-Coordinator sentiment was pervasive both in the military and the government. “Space monster” was a common epithet, implying that Coordinators (the majority of whom lived in space) were inhuman and dangerous.

Such attitudes played into Patrick Zala’s hands. In his speeches, he often cited them as proof that the Naturals, despite (or because of) their “inferiority”, recognized that Coordinators were a new species. Though he stopped short of calling for a campaign of extermination, Zala did his best to incite hatred against Naturals in general. Thus far, it had only worked on the most hardcore.

“Zala isn’t helping matters,” Alex said, voicing Murrue’s thoughts. “I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his speeches, but I can tell you, even though he hasn’t actually called for the extermination of the Naturals, he manages to make it abundantly clear that it’s what he wants.”

Mu La Flaga snorted. “No kidding. I saw the one from just after the Bloody Valentine. Man, his glare could punch through the Archangel’s laminated armor.”

Alex’s lips twitched in what might have been a sneer. “And he is not exactly known for moderation; if anything, he’s even worse in private. Aunt Ezalia’s told me quite a bit.” He shook his head, visibly disgusted. “I swear, the only good thing that guy ever did was to have a kid.”

“Perhaps so,” Murrue said, “but we don’t have to worry about that right now. We have more immediate things to deal with.” She looked at Kuzzey again. “Inform Captain Koopman -and Vice Minister Allster- of our situation. Make sure they understand that the Valkyrie is a friendly.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Bismarck, bridge

So, Daniel Bartlett thought, gazing at the tabletop display. The games afoot.

His flagship had been repaired at the PLANTs, just in time to join the Le Creuset team in the search for Lacus Clyne. Search and rescue were not his preferred duty, though he understood why it had to be done. The morale effects of her loss would be profound, and Bartlett certainly sympathized with Athrun Zala, since Miss Clyne was the young pilot’s fiancée.

Besides, the Coast team had disappeared in the Debris Belt on this very mission. Given the Doctor’s skill both as a pilot and commander, that meant he had run into something nasty, and that something nasty was almost certainly the legged ship. And that, in turn, meant the Valkyrie was involved.

That will make this whole trip worthwhile, even if we must work with the Le Creuset team. Favored though he was by the high command, Rau Le Creuset had more than his share of detractors. Bartlett himself was among them (one of the few cases where he agreed with Alex Strassmeier); others ran the gamut from feckless incompetents like submariner Marco Morassim, who often referred to Le Creuset as a punk, to highly skilled warriors like Andrew “Desert Tiger” Waltfeld.

“From what we’ve heard, the legged ship and its companion were almost certainly responsible for the Coast team’s disappearance,” Michael Harriman said. “They may well be nearby.”

Bartlett nodded. “I agree. Le Creuset does, as well, or so I judge by our status. Whatever else Alex Strassmeier might be, he is not stupid, so such a large force is common sense.”

“But will Joule be willing to open fire on his cousin?” Harriman asked. “That could be a problem.”

“Le Creuset has already given Joule permission to use disabling attacks if we do encounter those two ships,” Bartlett replied. “The same for Zala and that Yamato kid.” He shrugged. “Le Creuset is in charge, so it’s his decision to make.” A feral light showed in his cold gray eyes. “I, on the other hand, am under no such constraints. If I get within range, Strassmeier is doomed.”

It did not even occur to Harriman to question that statement. Despite the skill Alex Strassmeier had exhibited in their previous encounter, despite his superior machine, Bismarck’s captain believed that his commander would win the next engagement. (Such overconfidence was why Captain Zelman considered Harriman an incompetent.)

They would get a reality check when the two forces faced off again…

Gamow, hangar

Yzak Joule sat in the cockpit of his Duel Gundam, hands flying over the machine’s keyboard. As a group, ZAFT soldiers were more individualistic than their Earth Forces counterparts. Mobile suit pilots were allowed great leeway in personalizing their machines; Miguel Aiman, for example, had customized his GINN for higher performance. (Unfortunately, he had also had more breakdowns than most.)

Even more than regulars, the four Gundam pilots were expected to make whatever modifications they felt necessary to bring out the best in their one-of-a-kind machines. So it was that Yzak found himself in his cockpit, tweaking the OS.

He sighed. His main reason for working on his machine was to try to distract himself, but it was not working. Yzak’s mind was only half on the task at hand. He could not stop thinking about the coming battle; he knew as well as anyone that they would soon be facing the legged ship again. And facing the legged ship meant another confrontation with the Valkyrie.

Alex, why do we have to keep fighting each other? Yzak was profoundly grateful that Commander Le Creuset was allowing him to use disabling attacks on the Stormbird, but that was only part of the problem. He knew perfectly well that Alex would never surrender, that his cousin would prefer death to falling into the hands of ZAFT as it now was.

“Hey, Yzak.”

Yzak glanced up. “Nicol? What are you doing in here this late?”

The pilot-cum-pianist shrugged. “Same thing you are I had an idea for an improvement on the Blitz’s OS, so I figured I’d better take care of it, ASAP. We never know when we’ll run into Earth Forces units.”

“Especially when we’re searching for Lacus Clyne,” Yzak agreed. He frowned suddenly. “But there’s something…”

Nicol blinked. “Yzak?”

“You can bet the legged ship’s going to turn up again,” Yzak said slowly. “The captain’s older brother is in the Junk Guild; the guy’s daughter is in command of the black ship, and she’s one of Alex’s closest friends…” He trailed off, then abruptly snapped his fingers. “Of course!”

“What is it?”

“About ten years ago, Alex told me he had a friend in the Junk Guild,” Yzak explained. “He didn’t mention her name, but he did ask that I keep it quiet.”

Nicol frowned. “Why would he do that?”

Yzak shrugged. “You know the Junk Guild: they’re stubbornly neutral, even more than Orb. The girl’s parents did not want her friendship with a Supreme Council member’s nephew to be widely known. Anyway, I think that she must be the black ship’s captain.”

“Makes sense,” the other agreed. He drifted towards his own machine.

Yzak watched him go. Initially, he had thought Nicol a coward, but, as he got to know the younger pilot, Yzak was reminded more and more of his cousin. Alex Strassmeier had a soft core, however much he tried to hide it; Yzak was one of the few people who had seen it.

He sighed and resumed typing. Whatever happened, he had to make sure the Duel was ready for the next battle.

Vesalius, bridge, 7 February, C.E. 71

“So,” Rau Le Creuset said, “it appears we have company.”

“Yes, sir,” Ades agreed. “A Nelson-class ship, and two Drakes.”

“Hmm.” Le Creuset gazed thoughtfully at the display. “Given that there’s nothing nearby that the Earth Forces care about, I would have to say they’re here to resupply the legged ship. In which case, we have a golden opportunity.”

Athrun Zala looked up in surprise. “Sir, aren’t our orders to-“

“I’m well aware of our instructions to search for Miss Clyne,” Le Creuset said. “However, we cannot afford to pass up a chance to destroy the legged ship.” His voice softened a little. “I don’t blame you for being anxious, but first and foremost we are soldiers.”

Athrun swallowed hard, then nodded. “I understand, sir.”

“In any case, we might find your fiancée at the same time,” the masked man went on. “I would not be at all surprised if those two ships passed through the Debris Belt after they escaped from Artemis, and from what Yzak has told me, Strassmeier, despite his cold-blooded exterior, would happily perform a rescue operation. Therefore, if we encounter the black ship, only its weapons and engines will be targeted.”

Assuming we can even see it, Athrun thought sourly.

None of them realized they were worrying about the wrong ship…

Archangel/Valkyrie, bridge

Having reached communications range with the advance force, the two mobile assault ships coasted along at a relatively slow speed. The Archangel flew slightly ahead; Captain Koopman of the Montgomery was slightly nervous about the Valkyrie.

As Murrue had requested, Flay stood on the Archangel’s bridge, and she smiled when her father appeared on the screen. “Hi, Daddy.”

Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster slumped in his chair, visibly relieved. “Flay, thank goodness you’re safe.” He looked at Murrue. “Thank you, Captain Ramius. I owe you a great deal.”

“And not just for that,” Koopman put in. “You’ve done well, keeping both your ship and the Strike intact.” He frowned. “But what of the other ship?”

“The Valkyrie joined forces with us just before Heliopolis collapsed,” Murrue responded. “My niece Lia is in command.”

Koopman nodded and shifted his attention to the younger woman. “You have our thanks, as well.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lia said cheerfully. She jerked her head at the expressionless Coordinator behind and to her right. “Alex doesn’t much like the Earth Forces, but he’s not a fan of ZAFT, either. And he really hates Rau Le Creuset.”

The Earth Forces officer blinked. “Alex?”

“Strassmeier,” Lia supplied.

Allster surged out of his chair. “Strassmeier? Ezalia Joule’s nephew?”

“Correct, sir,” Alex said, speaking for the first time. He cocked his head. “Is there a problem?”

The vice minister ignored him, addressing Lia instead. “What is someone like him doing there?” he demanded. “A Coordinator, a relative of one of the biggest radicals in the PLANTs, no less?”

Lia’s eyes narrowed. “It was Alex’s idea to build this ship and its attendant mobile suits, Vice Minister. All of this was part of his plan to stop Patrick Zala from wiping out all Naturals.” Her expression hardened. “And for your information, sir, I too am a Coordinator.”

“And so’s the pilot of the Strike,” Flay put in. “If he hadn’t picked up the life pod I was in, I’d be dead.”

That rocked Allster back a little. A Coordinator…saved Flay? But they are… Now he was confused. He disliked Coordinators (to put it mildly), and yet one of them had saved his daughter’s life.

“All right,” he said at last. “Perhaps the young man is an exception, along with your niece, Captain, but surely you realize that they are exceptions. Most Coordinators are our mortal enemies.” He glared at Alex. “As for him…”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “You seem to have a problem with me, sir.”

“Of course, I have a problem!” Allster snapped. “You clearly pose a danger to everyone on the Archangel.”

The Coordinator’s eyes narrowed to slits; Lia and Cagalli, both of whom knew the signs, winced. “Just what are you accusing me of?” he asked in a deceptively soft voice.

Allster looked at him as though he was not paying attention. “No one with your background would help the Earth Forces, so you’re obviously a spy.”

“Daddy!” Flay protested.

“Sir, with all due respect, that was uncalled for!” Murrue said.

Cagalli gazed at the vice minister with thinly veiled contempt. What an idiot. Hard to believe Flay’s his daughter; she is such a nice girl.

Alex’s thoughts were much the same. Flay’s related to this bigoted fool? The mind boggles. He stood, his face somehow more hawk-like than usual. “Sir, if you’d bothered to read any reports of the final moments at Heliopolis, you’d know that your accusation is baseless. As the crew of the Archangel will confirm, I personally struck down the Magic Bullet of Dusk, Miguel Aiman, in that battle. Even Patrick Zala isn’t ruthless enough to sacrifice his own people just to maintain a spy’s cover.”

“He’s right,” Mu put in. “Zala’s a nut, but he wouldn’t try something like that.” His gaze sharpened. “And Alex isn’t the sort of person who’d kill without a good reason.”

“In any case, you have nothing to fear from me at this point,” Alex said. “You may find it hard to believe, but I consider Flay a friend, and I have no intention of bereaving her if I can possibly avoid it.”

Allster sat back, stunned. After hearing what had happened at Heliopolis, he was not that surprised that Flay and the Strike pilot would have become friends -Kira did save her life, after all- but someone like Alex Strassmeier? “Strassmeier, what are you-“

He never got a chance to finish, for at that moment, the ZAFT vessels Vesalius, Gamow, and Bismarck reached attack range.

“Warning!” Romero Pal snapped. “N-jammer levels increasing! Three ZAFT warships approaching!”

“Checking profiles,” Chandra sang out. “Vesalius, Gamow, and Bismarck. They’re heading this way!”

Ramius immediately punched an all-call button. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Archangel, hangar

Kira hurriedly strapped himself into the Strike, barely aware of Mu La Flaga doing the same in the Moebius Zero. “Kira here. I’m ready,” he said, lowering his visor.

“Roger that, Kira,” Mir said. “Orders are not to launch but be ready in case that changes.”

“Got it.” He wondered, though. He knew that they were facing all four stolen Gundams -including Athrun, and Alex’s cousin- and that the Montgomery’s mobile armors were no match for any mobile suits, let alone Gundams. Going into battle without the Archangel was suicide.

Withdrawing will not save us, so why are they doing this? They are just getting themselves killed. Unless… “Miriallia, what about the Valkyrie? Have they moved at all?”

She glanced at something offscreen. “No sign of activity yet, but you can bet Alex won’t just sit around. He’ll want to protect Vice Minister Allster for Flay’s sake, and you know how he hates Rau Le Creuset.”

“Yeah.” I still think this is a mistake, though. Alex and his friends cannot handle everything…

Open space

Kira and Mir were right; Alex had no intention of just sitting around. Even before Murrue Ramius brought her ship to battle stations, Alex was pulling on his flight suit (a green one, ZAFT surplus; he could have gotten one in elite red, but he did not feel worthy to wear it). By the time Kira strapped into the Strike, X108 Stormbird was moving to the Valkyrie’s starboard catapult.

“What are you planning to do?” Cagalli asked.

“If possible, we’re going to save Koopman and Allster in spite of themselves,” Alex said. “Yzak and Bartlett are both out there, a complication I could really do without.”

She nodded. “You’re clear for launch. Be careful out there.”

“I will.” His hands tightened on the control bars. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

The Stormbird hurtled out into space, followed closely by the Devastator, the Scorpion, and the Shinobi. As the last machine, X112 Inferno, was guided to the catapult, pilot Chris Madsen made one last check of his systems. The flamer particularly concerned him; such weapons were not easy to adapt for space use.

This time, though, it checked out. Seeing the results, Chris nodded in satisfaction, then assumed his usual unhinged manner, which very few people knew was just as much a facade as Alex’s cold demeanor. “Chris Madsen, Inferno launching!” As the catapult spat him into space, he glanced one last time at the symbol on his status screen: the emblem of the Serpent Tail.

“All right, people,” Alex said. “Let’s do it!”

Two mobile suit forces closed at high speed. Though the ZAFT teams had the advantage of numbers, they had only four Gundams; the rest were in GINNs and a CGUE. Against five Gundams, the odds were basically even.

Alex quickly found himself engaged by two machines at once, his cousin Yzak’s Duel, and Daniel Bartlett’s custom CGUE. The CGUE was clearly the greater threat; he knew Yzak would not be willing to shoot to kill, at least not yet. Ignoring the Duel, he fired one shot at the CGUE, which simply splashed on the ZAFT machine’s shield.

Bartlett laughed harshly. “You’ll have to do better than that, Strassmeier!” He returned fire with both his beam rifle and shield Gatling; the latter intended merely as a distraction.

Alex took the beams on his own shield and ignored the bullets completely. “You persist in underestimating me, Bartlett. One day that sort of thing will get you killed.”

While the two rivals exchanged gunshots and verbal barbs (watched by an extremely nervous Yzak, who was unable to intervene), the larger battle continued unabated. Athrun ignored the Valkyrie’s mobile suits completely, concentrating on the Earth Forces warships. Kyle and Dearka found themselves trading artillery shots, while Hiro played hide-and-seek with Nicol’s Blitz. Brian, meanwhile, gave the ZAFT ships’ CIWS fits with his unpredictable maneuvers.

Scorpion’s mobile armor mode is just what the doctor ordered, he thought with a tight grin.

Alex spared him a brief glance. You are doing well, Brian. Keep it up. Boosting away from the Duel and Bartlett’s CGUE, he pulled his plasma cannon and leveled it at the Bismarck. “Try this,” he muttered, and fired. The red-orange blast cored through the ZAFT ship’s starboard engine pod.

“You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!” Bartlett shouted, his beam rifle spitting emerald darts. When they struck the Stormbird’s shield without any noticeable effect, he cursed. “Just go down!”

“Once again, you underestimate your opponent.” Alex spun his machine and fired past his cousin’s Duel, striking one of the Vesalius’s GINNs. One spectacular detonation later, he turned back to the red CGUE. “Here’s a piece of free information: my shield absorbs energy, channeling it into the Stormbird’s battery. In other words, you’re recharging my machine for me.”

Bartlett raised his eyebrows. “Why tell me this?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because it doesn’t help you any. You still have no choice but to use beams, since projectiles are useless against Phase-shift.”

A dry chuckle from the ZAFT commander. “Perhaps so. But even your shield can only take so much.” He laughed harshly and abruptly boosted away.

Alex did not realize the danger at first. What is he up to? Then he suddenly found himself looking down the barrels of Bismarck’s cannons. Uh-oh. He kicked in his verniers just before the ship fired. Stormbird made it out untouched; the Bernard was not so fortunate. The Earth Forces vessel vanished in an instant, destroyed with all hands.

Archangel, hangar/open space

Mu La Flaga watched the battle with growing alarm. Like Kira, he had strapped into his machine as soon as the alarm sounded; now he contacted the bridge. “Captain, we need to launch, now. The advance forces are getting slaughtered, and I don’t think withdrawing will save us, even with Alex’s people out there.”

Murrue hesitated, the reluctantly nodded. “You’re right. Moebius Zero, Strike, launch at once!”

“Roger that. Mu La Flaga, launching!”

“Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!” Kira echoed.

Sai’s face appeared on his screen. “Kira, Flay’s father is on one of those ships…”

“I’ll make sure he gets out alive,” Kira said. “I promise.”

The mobile suit and mobile armor flashed into space side by side. Mu took on a pair of GINNs, while Kira moved to engage Athrun’s Aegis. Athrun, having just taken out the escort ship Law with his Scylla energy cannon, came at the Strike with his rifle blazing.

Soon it was Kira alone; Mu was able to destroy one GINN, but then took several severe hits in rapid succession and was forced to retreat. With the Moebius Zero out of the fight, and Kira effectively deadlocked with the Aegis, the mobile confrontation rested almost entirely with the Valkyrie’s machines.

Alex glanced briefly at the Strike, wincing in sympathy as Kira traded laser blasts with his dearest friend, then returned his attention to his own battle. So far, he had been able to keep Bartlett under control -he had destroyed two of the Bismarck’s GINNs- but he was not sure how long it could last.

Then his force was suddenly reduced to four mobile suits; the Buster had finally gotten a solid hit on Kyle, blowing the Devastator’s right arm off at the shoulder. “Sorry, Alex. I have to fall back.”

“Don’t worry about it. You did your best.”

Nor was that the only problem. After several crazy maneuvers, Brian, too, was forced to pull away before the Scorpion ran out of power. Shinobi and Inferno were still in action, but there was not much they could do at that point.

“You seem to be running low on mobile suits, Strassmeier,” Bartlett said mockingly, clashing his sword against the Stormbird’s shield. “I think we have the upper hand.”

Alex started to retort, then shut his mouth with a click. He is right. We must fall back, somehow.

At that moment, the Vesalius opened fire on the Montgomery, blowing the Earth Forces ship in half. On the Archangel, Flay Allster screamed once, then fainted. All but one person onboard was frozen with shock, and that person’s next action took everyone by surprise.

“This is the Earth Forces warship Archangel,” Natarle Badgiruel said. “Presently under the protective custody of this ship is PLANT Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne’s daughter, Lacus Clyne. We rescued her as a humanitarian gesture, but if you continue to attack, we will be forced to take matters into our own hands.”

Athrun Zala stared at the “legged ship” in horror. “What monsters you are!” He turned to glare at the Strike. “Well, Kira?” he demanded, his voice soft. “Do you still feel justified fighting by the sides of these cowards?” His voice rose to a shout on the last word.

Kira’s mouth worked silently, stunned by Badgiruel’s action. “Athrun, I…”

“I’m going to rescue her. That’s a promise.” The Aegis spun around, heading back to the Vesalius.

Yzak Joule clutched at his controls, a white-hot rage going through him. “See, Alex?” he whispered, so angry he was beyond shouting. “See what happens when you help the Earth Forces? It’s just like with Andrea, isn’t it?” Without waiting for a response, the Duel jetted back to the Gamow.

It was just as well that Yzak had not waited. Alex did not even hear him. His mind was not even in the present; it was in a time three years earlier.

He and his sister were running from their home, chased by Atlantic Federation soldiers.

“Come on, Andrea!” Alex said. “Hurry!” The girl tried to keep up but tripped over some debris. Alex skidded to a stop. “Andrea!” He started back but froze when his sister was surrounded.

“Alex, keep going!” she shouted. “Run!”

Alex ran, ran harder than he ever had before, tears mingling with blood where a rifle stock had split his cheek open. When he was sure they were no longer following him, he collapsed on the ground, exhausted. “Andrea, I’ll save you someday,” he whispered, then bowed his head, sobbing.

He came back to himself abruptly. After glancing around to reorient himself, he keyed his radio. “Hiro, Chris, get back to the ship. I’ll be there shortly.” The two pilots acknowledged, and he switched frequencies. “Cagalli, Hiro and Chris are on their way in. I’ll be back soon, after I… check things out on the Archangel.”

“I understand.” And she did; a matching outrage burned in Cagalli’s golden eyes.

Alex boosted towards the Archangel’s starboard catapult. Natarle Badgiruel, you just made an excessively big mistake.

Archangel, bridge

“I had no choice,” Badgiruel was saying. “I couldn’t let them destroy us.”

Murrue shook her head. “I understand that, Natarle, but still…” She trailed off, but her tone made noticeably clear that she disapproved of her subordinate’s tactics.

Both women turned as the rear hatch opened. Alex Strassmeier stormed onto the bridge, his normally expressionless face livid, his eyes blazing. Badgiruel flinched despite herself; Alex had proven his willingness to kill if necessary, and she had no desire to be his next target.

Still, in her opinion, his anger was misplaced. “Strassmeier,” the ensign began.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” the Coordinator asked in a deceptively soft voice.

Badgiruel blinked, slightly unnerved. “I was merely acting to protect this ship and those aboard. I had no alternative.”

“Oh really?” Alex responded, still softly. “What about the fact that the taking of hostages is a crime anywhere?”

“Regulations allow for emergencies-“

She did not get a chance to finish. Alex snarled viciously and backhanded her across the face. “Your treacherous coward!” he shouted, trembling with fury. “How dare you presume that you have the right to use an innocent civilian as a pawn! Lacus Clyne isn’t a chess piece, dummkopf!”

Badgiruel started to rise but stopped when she found herself looking down the barrel of Alex’s pistol at fifteen centimeters.

“Give me a reason,” Alex whispered. “Give me the slightest reason to pull this trigger, and I swear I will.”

Given the choice between remaining still and receiving a forty-five-caliber bullet through the brain, Badgiruel wisely opted not to provoke him.

Alex held his aim for a moment longer, then nodded. “Good.” Holstering the weapon, he turned to Murrue. “I will only say this once: if something like this ever happens again, I will personally reduce this ship’s engines to a puddle of molten slag. And don’t talk to me about the refugees; Valkyrie can take them on if necessary.” With that, he spun around and stalked away.

Murrue stared after him, more than a little shaken. “You know, since we left Heliopolis, I’ve often wondered what it would take to get him to explode. Well, now I know.” She shook her head, then looked at her XO. “However, he was right about one thing. Such tactics can have no justification, and they will not be used again. Is that clear?”

The ensign saluted; though she disagreed, she knew she had no choice. “As you command, ma’am.”

Murrue sighed and settled into her command chair. Sai had taken an unconscious Flay to the infirmary, so the EW station was unmanned, but that did not matter at present. Even Rau Le Creuset would not dare attack with Lacus Clyne onboard; not only was she the daughter of the Supreme Council’s Chairman, but, according to Kira, she was also engaged to Aegis pilot Athrun Zala.

She closed her eyes. Alex’s tirade had not come as a surprise; indeed, Murrue was mildly surprised the young Coordinator had stopped short of killing Ensign Badgiruel. In any case, this incident was likely to solidify his view of the Earth Alliance, which could cause problems, not for the Archangel itself, but for the whole of the Alliance.

The only reason I am still alive is because he is friends with my niece, Murrue realized. Still, she could not help wondering how far that consideration would go.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex was still fuming an hour later. It took a lot to crack his self-control, but a stunt like Badgiruel’s, especially one that brought back memories of his sister’s abduction, did the job. Badgiruel was luckier to be alive than she realized; Alex had come remarkably close to shooting her, regardless of whether she moved or not.

There was also the fact that Alex and Kira both had close connections to the opposing force. Even this was unlikely to split Kira and Athrun apart since Kira clearly had nothing to do with it. If Lacus got out alive, Athrun would be forgiving. Probably.

Yzak, on the other hand… Yzak Joule was not known for moderation. He was not likely -this time- to hold Alex responsible for what had happened, but a few more such events could change that. Eventually, his temper would get the better of him, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Alex clenched his fists, cursing the twist of fate that had forced him to cooperate with the Earth Forces. This one was not even Zala’s fault; the blame lay with the Earth Forces, who had built mobile suits and a warship inside a neutral colony, with Rondo Ghina Sahaku, who had allowed it, and with Rau Le Creuset, who had treacherously attacked the colony.

The hatch that he had forgotten to lock slid open behind him. “Alex?” Cagalli called softly.

He looked up. Normally, the only person he tolerated this from was Lia Ramius, and yet somehow… “Something up?”

She drifted over. “I was just wondering what happened…” She trailed off, looking closely at him. His eyes seemed a little red. “Have you been crying?”

Alex started to snap, then stopped himself. He only tolerated that sort of query from a handful of people; he wondered just when the princess had become part of that group. “A little,” he said at last, not sure why he was even admitting it. “When Ensign Badgiruel made her…announcement,” Cagalli winced at the venom in her friend’s voice, though she agreed wholeheartedly, “I had a bit of a flashback. Specifically, to when my sister was kidnapped.”

Cagalli was not surprised in the least. “And that’s why you were so angry.”

“That, and the fact that Badgiruel’s actions were despicable in and of themselves,” Alex confirmed.

He stood and began to pace. “This is a textbook example of why I despise the Earth Alliance. The PLANTs have been oppressed from the outset. Even before the Alliance was formed, the sponsor nations imposed ridiculous quotas while at the same time keeping the PLANTs completely demilitarized.”

“Which was why Siegel Clyne and Patrick Zala founded ZAFT.” Despite the seeming irrelevance of the story, and despite knowing most of it already, Cagalli was fascinated.

“Precisely,” he agreed. “Even I will admit Zala wasn’t always a madman; it was probably the Bloody Valentine that triggered that. Anyway, before ZAFT was formed, we were helpless against Blue Cosmos and other anti-Coordinator groups. And when the sponsor nations attacked the Supreme Council directly…”

Cagalli grimaced, remembering the incident. Her father had had some very nasty things to say about the Atlantic Federation at the time. “Talk about crazy. Weren’t the sponsor nations almost completely dependent on the PLANTs for resources by then?”

Alex nodded. “If you will pardon the cliché, it was a case of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. That, however, was only the beginning.”

She knew exactly where he was going with that one. “Copernicus.”

“Copernicus.” His voice was flat. “That, as you know, was what prompted the declaration of war; from what I heard later, they tried to claim that Chairman Clyne’s shuttle malfunction was deliberate.” He snorted. “Preposterous, of course, but that was all they had. They couldn’t let the real culprit be identified.”

Cagalli blinked. “The real culprit?”

Another snort. “Conventional wisdom has it that Blue Cosmos was responsible, but it wasn’t. It was an Atlantic Federation special forces unit -possibly the same unit that kidnapped Andrea- that carried out the attack.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. This she had not expected. “Are you serious?”

“Very.” Alex’s eyes were suddenly very cold, but only for a moment. “Despite Badgiruel’s stunt, I still believe the people on the Archangel are different from the rest of the Alliance. And, however angry I might be, I don’t think it will be a problem much longer.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

Alex did not answer. He did not have to; a moment later, Lia’s voice came over the intercom. “Alex, the Strike is launching, and I somehow doubt Aunt Murrue authorized it.”

He pushed a button on his desk. “Understood. I’ll be heading out as well, making sure the Earth Forces don’t interfere.”

“Got it.”

He started for the door, but Cagalli’s voice stopped him. “Alex.”

Alex glanced over his shoulder. The princess was looking at him with an unreadable expression. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

Archangel

While the officers debated what to do next, Kira had already made his own decision. Unable to stand the situation any longer, he drifted down the corridor towards Lacus’s quarters. He hesitated at his destination, then pressed the hatch control. “Miss Clyne?”

Lacus sat up and blinked. “Mister Yamato? What are you doing here this late?”

“Please, hurry up and get dressed,” he said. “I’m getting you out of here.”

A few minutes later, they moved quietly for the pilots’ locker room. As it was ship’s night, they did not meet anyone until they were almost at the door. Kira, hearing movement, motioned for Lacus to duck around the corner, out of sight.

She moved just in time. Sai Argyle and Miriallia Haw almost collided with Kira. “Kira, what are you doing up?” Sai asked.

Kira forced a nonchalant attitude. “Couldn’t sleep. You?”

“We were checking on Flay,” Mir said, then froze as Lacus appeared behind Kira. “Um…”

His expression hardened. “Please, don’t try to interfere. I just can’t let this go on.”

Sai and Mir conversed in low tones, then looked up. “We’ll help,” Sai said.

Kira smiled, relieved. “Thank you.”

The pilot and the princess were soon suited up (given the transfer method Kira had in mind, Lacus need a vac suit, though her bunched dress made her look somewhat overweight), and the four teens made it to the hangar without incident. Sai and Mir watched for trouble, allowing Kira and Lacus to reach the Strike.

Lacus smiled at the young volunteers. “Goodbye, then. I hope we meet again someday.”

Sai shrugged. “I’m not so sure we will.” Then, to Kira, “Kira, you’ll be back, right?”

Kira nodded. He understood why Sai wanted to make sure, since his friendship with the pilot of the Aegis was common knowledge. “I will. I promise.” He closed the hatch, ignoring the shouts Sai and Mir exchanged with Murdoch, who had come out of nowhere, and then he was launching, and it did not matter.

bridge

Murrue and Badgiruel jerked upright simultaneously as alarms blared. “What is going on?” Murrue demanded.

Badgiruel stared at her display in disbelief. “The Strike is launching!” she said, astonished. She punched an intercom button. “Kira Yamato, just what are you doing?”

“You’re wasting your time, Ensign,” Mu said from the Moebius Zero. “He’s getting the girl out, and it’s too late to stop him.”

Badgiruel hissed in frustration. “Just what does he think he’s doing?”

Pal gave them another puzzle. “Captain, the Stormbird is directly behind us!”

Before Murrue could say anything, Alex’s face appeared on the main screen. “Alex, what is going on?” she demanded.

He smiled thinly. “I think, and I’m sure you do as well, that Kira is getting Lacus out, and there’s nothing you can do to stop him. If nothing else, I will make sure of that.”

“Strassmeier, just what do you think you’re-” Badgiruel began hotly.

Alex cut her off. “Keep your mouth shut, you coward,” he snarled, his voice abruptly harsh. “He’s only correcting the mistake you made. If you interfere, you will regret it.” He cut the link before anyone could respond.

Murrue sighed. “He’s right. It is out of our hands. Still…” She met Mu’s gaze on her arm viewer. “Be prepared to launch if Kira needs help.”

He flipped a salute. “You got it.”

Vesalius, pilots’ ready room

Athrun slammed his fist into a locker. “Lacus is a civilian! How could you take her hostage?” An image of Kira flashed through his mind. “Kira, how can you be with that kind of people? Aren’t you one of us, a Coordinator like me?”

An alarm sounded, followed by the voice of a radar operator. “We’re detecting a mobile suit launching from the legged ship!”

Then Kira spoke. “Attention, ZAFT vessel. This is the pilot of the Strike. My mission is peaceful; I am returning Lacus Clyne to you. She will be given over on two conditions: that you cut your engines, and that we be met only by the pilot of the Aegis.” His voice hardened. “If these demands are not met, I cannot guarantee her safety.”

Minutes later, Athrun was strapping into the Aegis. He keyed his radio. “Commander, please let me go.”

“We don’t know if Miss Clyne is in that machine,” Ades protested. “And there’s still the black ship…”

“Alex will be helping us here,” Yzak put in, “making sure the Earth Forces don’t get in the way.”

Le Creuset considered that, then nodded. “Very well. You’ve permission.”

Athrun smiled gratefully. “Thank you, sir.”

open space

Seeing the Aegis, Kira brought the Strike to a stop. “Athrun? Is that you?”

“It’s me, Kira,” Athrun replied.

Kira leveled his beam rifle. “Open your cockpit!”

Not wanting any trouble, Athrun complied. The hatch opened, allowing him to view the Strike directly.

“Say something,” Kira told the Pink Princess. “He can’t see you from there.”

“Hello, Athrun!” she called. “It’s good to see you again!”

Athrun smiled, visibly relieved. “I confirm it’s Lacus.”

“Then prepare to receive her.”

Kira gave Lacus a gentle shove, sending her into Athrun’s waiting arms. For a long moment, the two old friends gazed at each other across the void.

I still have a chance, Athrun thought. “Kira! You come along with us, too! There isn’t any reason why you should remain with the Earth Forces!”

Kira bowed his head, feeling tears sting his eyes. “Believe me, the last thing I want to do is fight you. But aboard that ship are people I feel obligated to protect.” He looked up. “My friends are on that ship!”

Athrun teared up as well. Why? Why did it have to come to this? “Then I have got no choice, Kira. The next time we meet in battle, I will show you no mercy!”

“Same goes for me.”

The Strike closed and spun on its axis, returning to the Archangel. Even as it retreated, Rau Le Creuset sprung his trap. He had come out personally in his CGUE, intending to take advantage of Kira’s action. He had it made, now…or so he thought.

“Commander?” Athrun asked, incredulous.

“Athrun, return to the ship with Miss Clyne at once!” Le Creuset snapped, then barked a startled curse as a green blast narrowly missed him. “What the?”

The Stormbird, having abandoned its position behind the Archangel, charged in at full speed. “Le Creuset, you bastard!” Alex snarled. “Kira came out in good faith!”

Le Creuset turned to engage the new threat, but another intervened. “Commander Le Creuset, what are you doing?” Lacus demanded.

“Miss Clyne, this really isn’t the time-“

“Are you planning to turn this into a battlefield in the presence of a memorial representative like myself?” she continued. “Commander, I am ordering you to break off your attack at once!”

The masked man cursed under his breath. Of all the times… Very well. “Understood. I’m breaking off.”

Kira, Mu, and Alex watched as the three ZAFT ships pulled away. Mu felt nothing but satisfaction. The two Coordinators felt differently, both saddened that they would soon have to fight people dear to them once again.

Mu at last broke the silence. “Come on, you two. Let us head back.”

Author’s note: not much to say this time, except sorry for taking so long. The author will try to do better. The author hopes this passes muster.