EYES OF THE OTHERS
"MURDERER! STOP LAUGHING!"
The Strike's fist smashed into the domed Gundam's head with all the anger I could muster, Phase Shift armour sparking angrily as the faceplate cracked from the blow, swiftly smashing with the follow-up strike. I had gone beyond anger, beyond hatred for this cursed machine that I was pounding into its own dome as we crashed through the atmosphere. Pure carnal rage was the only thing that consumed my mind. It fuelled every thought and every action as I tore at the arm that held the weapon that had ended Athrun's life, the limb breaking clear away, rifle and all, and burning up from the re-entry heat.
Meanwhile the laughter still echoed in my head. Mocking me…mocking Athrun. It made me push the Strike to its very limits as we hurtled through the atmosphere to the hard ground below.
Alarm bells shrieked in my ears as one of my enemy's legs fell away from the main body, but still I continued my assault. I just didn't care anymore. I wanted the domed Gundam's pilot dead, and nothing else would matter until I had cracked that dammed suit open and crushed the fragile body within…
That is…until a new warning light flashed in my eyes; the battery was nearing depletion.
As the Strike's armour hissed angrily and turned a dull grey, my anger quickly faded as the primal instinct to survive quickly took over. Without the phase shift armour a line of defence against re-entry was lost, and already I could feel the heat within the cockpit intensify.
Then there was the ground. Even as I pulled down the maintenance console, desperate to get the Phase Shift Armour back online, a plain of sandy desert stretched out below us, the curve of the Earth gradually getting shallower with every second, the stars engulfed by the reflected light of the atmosphere.
Then there was the screaming. No more was the pilot of the domed Gundam laughing in the face of impenitent death. Now only pain and fear ridden screams filled my cockpit's speakers, tones that turned my blood cold and chilled me down to my very soul. The pilot was dying. Be it from the damage I had caused to his machine or the fact his Natural biology wasn't up to the task of entering Earth's Atmosphere so messily, I didn't know. All I knew was there was nothing I could do to help him…not that I wanted to.
My fingers danced across the maintenance console as I diverted all available power to the thrusters and armour around the cockpit, the Phase Shift hissing weakly in my ears as the Strike's chest turned a pale white.
There wasn't enough power for the entire suit, but it didn't really matter. Below me the domed Gundam seemed to glow faintly and radiate heat through the Strike's armour, the desert sands now dominating my forward view. Impact was imminent.
Slamming my foot against the accelerator pedal, the Aile pack's thrusters roared to life as I released my make-shift shield, the remains of the mobile suit plummeting down and away from sight within moments.
Now all that was left between me and the ground was open sky. I knew as I gripped the control sticks I wouldn't be able to level out in time; there just wasn't enough power to keep the Strike in the air, and the sands below were rapidly approaching.
Pulling back on the control sticks, I angled my Gundam's legs and thrusters towards the Earth, bile rising in my throat as the entire frame lurched at the sudden deceleration, my teeth bared, mind and body braced as the gap between the sands and me went from a mile to metres to centimetres to nothing at all.
A sickening crunch shuddered through the mobile suit's frame as the Strike's feet impacted against the dunes, the legs automatically moving into a run as it detected ground beneath them.
It managed three steps before the Gundam fell.
I felt pain spasm through my body as the Strike slammed into the ground, sand flying in all directions as the great machine ploughed head first through the dunes, the screens before me dissolving into static. All I could feel was pain as I was thrown around within the cockpit's confines, my head slamming into the armoured sides several times as the Strike quickly began to slow.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity of noise and pain, the Strike groaned to a halt, the Phase Shift armour finally giving out with a hiss as blessed silence filled my ears.
The Gundam was clearly lying on its front; my body was hanging over the flickering screens by the chair's safety straps.
I felt…broken. My eyesight was blurring, and I could taste blood in my mouth. I was going to pass out…or die. Either would have been a pleasant relief after the ride I'd just endured.
But the engineer and soldier of ZAFT in me quietly took over. I had no idea where I was, only there was a lot of sand. That could mean I was within the African territories of ZAFT or the Middle Eastern countries of the Eurasian Federation for all I knew.
With aching fingers, I brought the maintenance console back down and locked down the Strike's activation program, connecting it to the self-destruction mechanism. If the Earth Alliance wanted their suit back it would have to fight for it, and I wasn't about to make it easy for them.
Of course they might just blow it up anyway, but right now I was too tired, too broken to care. At least this way, I left open the small chance that it would be ZAFT that might find me. A shame to kill myself in a grand explosion only to find myself five miles from a local ZAFT outpost after all.
A short beep confirmed my commands before the batteries on board finally died. I sighed as I smiled slightly. Job done. There was nothing more I could do. Athrun was dead, but so was his killer. One less Gundam to contend with. I was content with that, even if the crew of the Archangel would never find out.
As I quietly blacked out however, the moan of the wind against the cooling armour of the Strike the only sound, the last thought that passed through my mind was the realisation I'd broken my promise to Miriallia.
The pain was hazed now, he realised.
Not long ago it had arched through his body like lightning from the clouds, but now it was just a dull ache, like a scar that was never quite gone.
Then he realised: he was alive.
The heat of the mid-day sun seeped through the pilot suit, the bright light splintering through the fractured glass of his visor.
It was then he made another discovery: he was running out of air.
The helmet came clear with a pop of the broken seal, his dark eyes squinting against the sun as he inhaled burning hot air and staggered to his feet and turned to look at his landing sight.
The jetpack was still warm against his back, its limited fuel depleted. His mobile suit was long gone however, its remains could have been miles away for all he knew. He wasn't even sure when he'd managed to escape the wreckage. Perhaps he'd blacked out at some point. Even now he was feeling faint…
Which was when he realised a third thing: he was bleeding.
A jagged shard of metal was lodged between his lower ribs, a trickle of crimson oozing through the fabric. Common sense told him to leave it for now. He had no medical kits, and the shard would plug the wound until he could find some kind of aid…if he could find aid.
That said…just looking at the gash in his side started to make him feel woozy. Letting the helmet drop into the soft sand, he picked a direction and began to walk.
"We found her locked up in a normal suit down in the storage lockers by the Hangers. We wouldn't have found her if she hadn't been banging on the door so hard. I can't imagine what she was doing there though."
"The guard at the refugee area said she escaped before we went into battle and went after Westfield. Too bad he's not around. Might be interesting to hear what he has to say."
Sara listened to Yzak and Dearka's conversation with half an ear, her eyes focused on the girl sitting sullenly before her in the Archangel's brig, her hands clasped atop her orange dress, her face partially hidden by light brown bangs and shadows.
Across the room, several of the Earth Alliance prisoners watched with keen interest at the scene before them through the bars of their cells, but she ignored them too. All that concerned her was this girl; one of the first refugees they took on board.
"Miriallia Haw," the girl flinched at the sound of her name as the edge in Sara's voice cut the redcoats' conversation off abruptly, "you were found skulking around the hanger bays. I want to know why."
"I wasn't skulking," her captive's voice was calm yet sullen.
"Then why were you down there?"
"I wanted…to apologise?"
"To Marcus." The girl raised her head slightly, gazing at the Commander from behind her bangs. "It was so silly really. I could of waited. He always comes down every so often," she looked away slightly, almost in contemplation. "But I wanted to apologise…something told me I needed to tell him…in case he didn't come back."
"Your gut might have serve you well." Miriallia's eyes sharpened as she snapped her gaze back to Michaels'. "Westfield is currently listed as missing in action along with Zala," the Commander ignored the sharp intake of breath from the pilots behind her. "They didn't return to the Archangel, and we don't know where they are."
"I…see…" Miriallia lowered her gaze again. "What about the Orb ships?"
"The Susanoo was confirmed sunk as we descended to Earth. We don't know where the Tsukyomi made landfall. We presume they made it to Orb."
"Then…we're not at the homeland."
Sara paused, contemplating exactly how much she should reveal.
"No, we're not. We were forced to make a course correction to avoid the Susanoo's debris. We're currently…within ZAFT territory. The Alliance can't harm us here."
"Are you going to take us home?"
Sara stiffened slightly.
"That is no longer up to me."
"No longer up to you?"
"We are currently en-route to Banadiya, the main base of operations for ZAFT in this area. Once we've made port, we will decide what is to be done with the Orb refugees."
Miriallia's eyes widened as she stood up, "The crew of the Susanoo gave their lives to insure we reached Earth. The least you could do is make best speed…"
Your forgetting Miss Haw, this is not a ZAFT ship," Sara held up a contradicting finger with a grim smirk. "My orders were to capture this ship and bring it to the PLANTs for analysis. These orders still stand. That said, Orb is currently not our enemy, and you are still refugees. I will do everything I can to insure they are sent home as soon as possible."
Miriallia became wary, "You said 'they', not you. What are you going to with me?"
"That depends on whether you answer me truthfully or not." the smirk never left Sara's face. "What were you trying to accomplish by escaping the refugee area?"
"I told you why."
"You don't really expect me to believe you broke out of the refugee area just to say your sorry to Westfield do you?" the Commander folded her arms across her chest. "What exactly was so dire that you would get past the guards?"
"I just…" the teen scowled, before looking away. "I wasn't thinking. I put him on the spot a while ago. I just felt I had to say sorry…" she looked back fiercely. "If I wanted to sabotage the ship or something, don't you think I'd of found a more subtle way of doing it then barging past your men?"
Sara merely continued to smile.
"You tell me."
Miriallia glared at the whitecoat angrily, her hands clenched at her sides.
"You can think what you want. I'm not going to spin some fantastical tale about an evil teenage Natural spy on the Alliance payroll just to satisfy your suspicious mind!" she settled back down onto the bed. "I've told you the truth. If you don't believe me, that's your problem."
The smirk disappeared from Sara's face as the two women stared each other down, each gazing at the other unblinkingly as though daring to rise to the debate.
Finally, Sara sighed.
"Elsmen. Please escort Miss Haw down to the refugee area."
"Ma'am?" the blond blinked in surprise. "Are you sure?"
"Honestly…it doesn't matter if she's a spy or not," the smirk returned to Sara's lips as she headed out of the brig. "We got the Archangel into ZAFT territory. There's nothing the Alliance can do about it now, even if she was helping them."
Dearka decided he disliked an awkward silence.
As the elevator sped down towards the Refugee area, the pilot found his foot tapping agitatedly against the deck, his light blue eyes darting to the car's other occupant. Miriallia for her part kept her eyes firmly on the ground before her, a thoughtful frown etched into her pert features, her hands clasping quietly together in front of her.
"What are you thinking?"
She didn't look at him, "Why do you care?"
"Just trying to make conversation," Dearka shrugged, folding his arms across his chest. "You haven't said anything since we left the brig," he smirked slightly, "Plus it's been a while since I talked to a pretty girl."
A wince passed across her face, but she didn't reply. Her silence…irritated him.
"Is it so wrong to talk to me?"
"I don't feel like talking."
"What, do you look down on me or something?"
She turned her head, the sharp look in her eye causing him to blink in surprise.
"Do I look down upon you because you're a Coordinator?" her voice was hard. "Do I think I'm better then you, is that what you're asking? Because your genes have been tampered with? Because you came to my home brought your war with you? Because your Commander thinks I'm an Alliance spy out to blow you all to kingdom come?"
A daring smirk passed across Dearka's face, "Aren't you?"
She snorted at his pathetic attempt to catch her off guard, before lowering her eyes to the deck once more, "You're all paranoid."
"Can you blame us? Ever since we left Heliopolis, the Naturals have been trying to kill us…"
"Don't group us together like that!"
Dearka blinked indignantly as Miriallia glared at him fiercely, "Excuse me?"
"Don't group Naturals under one name, it's just rude," her features softened slightly, as though a far off memory had just come back to her. "When you take away everything that we are, it doesn't matter if we're Natural or Coordinator. We're all just people."
Dearka gave her a look of disgust, "You don't really thinks that's true do you? I'm not like you. I'm smarter, stronger, faster…"
"But you're still human," Miriallia smiled sadly as the elevator slowed, the doors opening out onto the Refugee area. "It doesn't matter what you do to your DNA, A Coordinator is no more or less of a human being then a Natural."
"Wait a minute!"
He grabbed her wrist before she was halfway out of the car, his teeth bared as he kept his grip tight.
"We are nothing like you," he hissed, afraid of anyone overhearing. "Coordinators are superior to Naturals in every way. Why do you think we're winning this war? Our enhancements over you will bring us victory, I guarantee it!"
To his surprise, she laughed. It wasn't filled with mirth or sarcasm. If anything, Miriallia sounded sad.
"You sound like Flay," she said quietly. "All your doing is fanning their flames," she pulled her wrist away from his grasp, turning towards him, her face set. "So I'll tell you what Marcus told her: I feel…nothing but sorrow for you."
For the first time since the voyage had begun, Dearka had nothing to say. He just stared at her until the elevator doors separated them, the car lurching upwards and leaving him utterly alone.
Muruta Azrael didn't flinch as a chair sailed past his ear, a slight smirk gracing his lips as he watched the red haired Extended (Clotho he believed his name was) proceed to turn his anger against the nearest wall of the Dominion's briefing room.
"That Stupid Git!" each word was accented by the sound of boot against bulkhead before turning back to his blond superior. "He not only gets himself blown up, but he takes two of those Coordinator bastards with him!"
Azrael merely continued to smile. Of the six people who sat before him along the long table, only Clotho seemed to be taking Shani's demise so badly. Olga, the other Extended, seemed content to keep his thoughts to himself, although the Director noticed his hands seemed to be clenching tightly around his folded arms. The three Natural pilots, Sven Cal Payang, Shams Couza and Mudie Holcroft, all sat stoically before the table, hands in laps, eyes on him, just as they had been told to do. If they wanted to comment on Olga's outburst (And Holcroft seemed to desperately want to laugh in his face.), they didn't say a word. It was only after a minute of listening to the pilot's ranting did Sutherland, ever loyally standing at Azrael's side, finally lost his patience.
"Shut your mouth Extended!" Ortho's teeth connected with a click as the Admiral's voice held a dangerous tone. "You will show respect to your saviours!"
"No, It's alright. Let him vent," Muruta sighed pitifully as he shook his head. "After all, he's got every right to be angry. I mean you've been chasing those guys for how long? And the only way one of you idiots can take down those Coordinators is if you take them personally on a tour of the upper atmosphere? It's quite pathetic really. And I don't know what you three are looking so smug about," the smirk that had been threatening to appear on Mudie's lips quickly disappeared. "Your machines were upgraded just so you could go up against Coordinators. And yet here the three of you are, all clean and tidy because none of you could get the upper hand."
That seemed to strike a nerve. Mudie's jaw seemed to clench as Shams scowled darkly. Only Sven remained silent and unemotional.
Azrael paused to let his words sink in, before allowing a smile to grace his pale face, his hands raised in a helpless manner.
"But still…it wasn't a bad ending for a first time out. Two of the machines the Coordinators captured have now been destroyed, and we have them on the run. We are going to follow them, plain and simple. The two Extended are going to be transferred over to the Dominion and we will make a decent along the Archangel's last known trajectory towards North Africa."
"Isn't that ZAFT controlled territory, Sir?"
The blond raised an eyebrows as Sven finally spoke up, but didn't let the smile leave his lips.
"I suppose it is. What's your point?"
"The Dominion is the only ship capable of entering the atmosphere. With respect sir, is it really wise to invade a nation with only one vessel?"
"Are you doubting your abilities to protect this ship pilot?"
"No sir. I just don't see the need to risk this ship for the sake of one ship and a few prototypes…"
The click of a safety catch caused Sven's voice to die in his throat, his hands clenching into fists under the table as he found himself looking down the barrel of Azrael's pistol.
"Let me ask you another question pilot," Muruta continued to smile calmly. "Are you doubting me? Do you think I would risk this ship and this crew without good reason?"
Sven didn't say anything. He just continued to stare down the barrel of the gun into his superior's eyes, refusing to betray emotion to the man before him.
"We allowed the Coordinators to get their hands on our latest technology. Can you imagine the devastation that would ensue if they reversed engineered the Lohengrin? The fact they haven't deployed the Blitz in some time is concern enough wouldn't you say? We must capture or reclaim any technology they have taken from us before they can use it against us. It's as simple as that."
"What if they've already managed to get the data to the PLANTs some how?" Sven frowned slightly. "What would this mission accomplish then?"
Azrael's smile merely tightened.
"Then after seeing you in action, let's hope that isn't the case. For your own sakes."
Nicol blinked several times, not entirely sure he had heard correctly.
Rau Le Creuset smiled gently, leaning back in his chair behind the desk in the Vesalius' office.
"Not replaced. Reassigned."
"Is there…a difference?"
"Of course," the Commander steeped his fingers, the smile never leaving his lips. "You will still be a part of the Le Creuset Team, you just won't be piloting the Blitz."
Nicol frowned again.
"I have been authorised to reconstruct my team." Rau explained, "We currently have the most experience with the Gundams…pending the Archangel's return of course…"
Nicol nodded. There had been rumours circulating around the ships in port of a battle occurring in Earth orbit. No ZAFT vessels had been in the area at the time, so exactly who the Alliance had been fighting was a mystery. Some thought that maybe Orb had finally chosen a side, or perhaps the Naturals were dealing with renegades. Nicol, as one of those few who were officially aware of Archangel's existence, was willing to bet a certain legged ship had been at the centre of that conflict.
"Captain Tandar has agreed to officially merge the remains of the 603rd Technical Evaluation Unit into the Le Creuset team until Commander Michaels returns as a replacement for the Gamow's forces and to make use of their evaluation expertise," Rau eased himself out of his chair to make his way around the desk. "Miguel will be able to return to active duty soon, and several pilots and their mahcines will be transferring from the LcConney Team so we'll be able to bolster our numbers somewhat. And then there's our new recruit. She will be taking control of the Blitz Gundam from you when we are officially assembled."
"But…I don't understand," Nicol shook his head. "Commander…I don't want to sound prideful but…I've worked with Gundams the longest here! Miguel has been comatose and our other pilots only have expertise with machines like the GINN. I'll admit, the 603rd's expertise will be useful, but still…"
"We need more pilots to familiarise themselves with Gundam technology," Nicol felt his teeth snap shut as Le Creuset's soft voice took on a slightly harsher tone for the barest of moments. "You are only one man, and if ZAFT is going to reproduce the Alliance's Gundams, we will need more like you and the pilots of the Archangel."
Nicol's eyes widened.
"They're…they're going to make more Gundams?"
"They're in development as we speak," Rau leaned up against the edge of the desk. "The data we retrieved was extremely valuable. To our Mobile suit development…and to our shipyards."
"They're building another Archangel," It was a statement, not a question.
"To an extent. We're currently developing a proof of concept prototype, something to insure we can reverse engineer the Alliance's technology safely," the commander passed a small data-pad to the redcoat. "We'll also work out any problems that were left unfixed on the Archangel. She hasn't been given a name yet, but you can see the basic design here…"
"Another Archangel," Nicol's voice was barely a murmur as he thumbed through the data before him, his eyes taking in technology both old and new. "ZAFT's own Archangel."
"They're expecting her to be spaceworthy by July, with the first Gundam prototypes rolling off the production lines a few weeks earlier." Rau continued to smile as he folded his arms across his chest, "With the Archangel missing in action, and the Blitz the only Gundam we have on hand, the Council obviously wants the prototypes completed as soon as possible so we can begin mass production."
"The council must be pretty eager if they expect to build a warship and mobile suits of Archangel's and a Gundam's calibre in just five months."
"Which is why we need to train other pilots. At present, only two new Gundams are being produced, but we have the possibility of more being on the table should the council decide the cost is worth it. That means we currently need three pilots, two for the prototypes and one for the Blitz, who in turn can train more pilots in the ways of the Gundams and so on. But at the beginning, it all boils down to you Nicol. With all other Gundam pilots missing in action, only you can save us from having to start training programs from scratch. Which is why you have been relieved of piloting duties of the Blitz Gundam. For now, we'll be using it as a training module for the potential pilots. You'll only train one pilot for now. Once the new Gundams have been completed the two of you will be transferred to them, and a third pilot will be trained and assigned to the Blitz."
"One of the most powerful mobile suits created to date…used as a training module…" Nicol smirked as he shook his head in disbelief. "If only its creators could see it now. So…whose the new pilot? A veteran? Miguel?"
Rau shook his head.
"The council felt it would be easier to train a new recruit from the ground up. Besides, a veteran might not be…willing to take orders from someone so young, even if it was Miguel," he pressed a button on the desk. "She graduated top of her class, so I'm sure she won't be too hard to train."
"She must be talented then if she achieved Redcoat status," Nicol smiled as he vaguely heard the door open behind him, "So…when do I meet the pilot?"
"Right now." Rau smiled as he indicated to the door. "Nicol Amalfi, meet your new student."
As the green haired pilot turned, he couldn't help but stare in surprise.
"Shiho Hahnenfuss, reporting as ordered," Shiho snapped off a salute with a smirk. "Good morning Mr. Amalfi, it's good to see you again."
"You never told me you were with ZAFT!"
"You never asked," Shiho smirked slyly at Nicol as the two pilots made their way through the Vesalius' corridors in the zero gravity. "Besides what difference does it make? Did I just shatter some farm girl image you had or something?"
"Well…yeah…kinda…" Nicol rubbed the back of his neck uneasily, "I mean…Junius Seven was an agricultural PLANT, and a farm girl seems to be the kind of girl Marcus would fall for right?"
"Well, I haven't been a soldier very long," Shiho frowned slightly, before smirking again, "and just because I lived on Junius Seven doesn't mean I ploughed the land or anything. That's kind of stereotyping Mr. Amalfi. Shame on you."
"Sorry," he laughed nervously. "I guess I wasn't thinking straight. I didn't think Commander Le Creuset would give me a teaching job of all things."
The girl continued to smirk as they approached the hanger's observation lounge, "Well, at least I'm your only student. If they actually decide to mass produce these things, at least you'll have teaching assistant if they give you a class."
"Guess that's true," the green haired pilot sighed as he stopped near the window, "but for now, one student, and one training module."
Shiho nodded as she turned her gaze to the Blitz Gundam below. It seemed starkly out of place, nestled in its berth between two GINNs. Even Commander Le Creuset's CGUE looked as though it belonged there with its mono-eyed brethren.
"But that's what makes it special," she thought to herself. "It's not like a GINN. This machine…is a Gundam."
How long had he been walking for now? Minutes? Hours?
He just wasn't sure. All he knew was that he had been trudging through the desert sands for what felt like an eternity, his footprints quickly covered by the dusty winds. At least the sun was nearing the horizon, the cooling air a welcome change to the merciless heat that had been beating down on his broken body.
His throat was parched, every joint ached, and his muscles felt as though someone had set them aflame. The jagged hunk of metal lodged between his ribs meanwhile caused him to wince with every other step, he would have sworn its tip was actually grazing his lungs. Not that it mattered much.
Every step was growing more sluggish, his eyesight blurring as stars seemed to dance around his vision's edge.
He couldn't die. He didn't want to die, but an object half hidden in the sand seemed to tell him otherwise. As his boot smacked against it, his tired body didn't have the will to try and stay on his feet. The sand burned against his face as he crashed into the dune, mercifully on his uninjured side. He didn't scream, he didn't see the point. No one would hear him, no rescue was coming.
His limbs refused to help him return to his feet. No matter how hard he tried, his hands only sunk into the hot sand while his arms weakly shook under his own weight.
Finally, he gave up, his head falling against the dune with a soft thump.
With waning strength, he slowly looked down the length of his body to where the object that had been his downfall lay, now unearthed by the sudden impact it had endured. It was a large slab of metal, probably around half his size, dark grey yet charred around the edges, with a series of letters and numbers imprinted on the surface that made his eyebrows hike up.
He might have laughed If he hadn't thought it would kill him. The irony of the situation seemed just too cliché.
Falling onto his back, he gazed up at the still bright sky as he felt his consciousness waning. Was this truly the end for him? Here he was, a soldier in the middle of a war, and he met his end by a piece of scrap metal? He chuckled darkly at the thought. Again, it just seemed all too cliché.
But now darkness was clouding in on all sides of his vision, his breathing becoming slower with every heartbeat. His eyelids felt heavy…he just wanted to sleep.
As consciousness finally left him, he swore he heard the sounds of scurrying feet across the desert sands, and the sounds of voices in an unknown language talk above him.
"Sheesh. Look at this thing. It must of dug a trench a mile long…"
Cagalli couldn't help but silently agree as the half-truck pulled up to the crash site, her dark eyes scanning the fallen machine in the quickly fading light.
She just had to take a look at the large Aile Striker pack mounted to the mobile suit's back to identify it as the X105.
Admittedly it had been in far better shape the last time she'd seen it at Heliopolis. Dents and scratches scoured most of the bodywork, one of the horns of it's creast had completely snapped off and one of the Aile's wings was bent at a rather ugly angle just to name a few items on a long list of damages. That was nothing to say of the trench the suit had left behind. While not a mile long, it still stretched out across the dunes and was already starting to fill up from the desert winds, yet it almost seemed to glint in the evening light, melted sand having formed globules of glass from the heat the machine must have been brimming with on impact. The G-weapon itself had been found flat on its face but had since been pulled onto one side by the first of the resistance fighters, and was now leaning precariously against one of the Aile's broken wings and thruster assemblies, its head lolling ever so slightly towards the ground.
It looked almost…sad.
"What a mess," Ahmed smirked as he pulled his goggles onto his dark brown hair. "I'm kinda surprised though. That other suit didn't even survive the freefall, let alone the impact."
"Maybe it was just an inferior model," Cagalli shrugged as she jumped over the jeep's side onto the cooling sands, "or maybe the pilot of the Strike was just the better of the two."
"Not that it did him much good. What!" the boy blinked in surprise at the dark scowl that crossed his companion's face. "I'm just saying. We saw the thing come down around mid-day and now the sun's going down. You'd of thought he would get up and go if he was alive."
"Not unless he dug his way out," Sahib Ashman sighed as he approached the pair, his bearded face covered in sweat and sand. "There's barely any power in this thing Cagalli. He probably wouldn't have even been able to open the door without the emergency release, let alone get his mobile suit back onto its feet. Even then, the machine was lying on its front, no way he would have been able to escape."
"Do you think he's alive?"
"Hard to say." Sahib scratched at his beard. "We didn't exactly bring the technology to detect body heat. Then again, the whole damn suit has been sitting in the sun all day, and before that it crashed through the atmosphere, so we wouldn't be able to tell anyways. The only way we'll know for sure is when we pop the hatch."
"We almost ready?"
"Just give the word," the elder guerrilla smirked as Cagalli pushed past him. "What's the hurry? The flatbeds won't be hear for another hour. There's no rush."
The blonde merely scowled at him from under her light bangs.
"I just want to see who got their hands on these machines first. That's all."
She strode away purposefully from the surprised men before either could voice a reply, her eyes set on the prone mobile suit before her as several comrades attached cables to a maintenance panel near the machine's entry hatch.
"Are you ready?"
"Just give me a minute," the guerrilla bit his tongue between his teeth as he poked at the flat device in his hands, "This thing was meant to hack into BuCUEs so it's having a bit of trouble with this Earth Alliance tech…there we go."
The dim light of sunset poured into the darkened cockpit as the hatch reluctantly opened with an angry hiss, an empty silence hanging in the air as the small group watched for signs of movement.
After a moment more of waiting, Cagalli hesitantly peered into the gloom.
The first thing she noticed was the crimson of the pilot's suit. Lying prone, his body held in place by the safety harness, his face obscured by a spider web of cracks running across his helmet's visor.
"Huh…ZAFT eh? Is he dead?"
The blonde scowled at Ahmed as he poked his head round the edge of the hatch.
"If you give me a minute, I can check…idiot."
She smirked slightly as she pushed past the indignant boy. Careful not to step on any of the side screens, she perched on the cockpit's side and she slowly reached for the broken helmet's edge, the headpiece giving way with only the barest of clicks.
The pilot was drenched in sweat. Pale skin glistening, his dark brown hair clinging to his skull. He could have easily been mistaken for dead, had his features not been twitching erratically, his face contorted with pain.
"He's alive." Cagalli frowned as she leaned back, helmet in hand. "Barely I guess."
"Maybe we should just put him out of his misery then."
"What do you…hey!" Cagalli did a double take as Ahmed raised his rifle to the pilot's exposed head. "YOU IDIOT!"
"OW!" all eyes suddenly looked up in alarm as Ahmed was roughly pushed from the mobile suit's cockpit, landing in the sand with a soft thump. "What was that for!"
"I said he was alive dammit!" the blonde glared down at the guerrilla as he rubbed his sore buttocks. "He needs medical attention, not a bullet to the head!"
"But he's ZAFT isn't he!" Ahmed glared up at her. "You know, the guys we're fighting out here!"
Cagalli scowled quietly.
"I know he's with ZAFT, but that doesn't give us the right to kill him, not like this. When we kill, those soldiers are trying to kill us! What does that say about the Desert Dawn if we kill a man who is sick and unarmed?"
Ahmed scratched his head uneasily.
"Nothing good when you put it like that."
"But is it really worth all the trouble?" Sahib frowned as he approached. "It took a lot of money to get these flatbeds out here, and we don't even know what's wrong with the Coordinator."
"It'll be worth it, I promise, " Cagalli smirked. "This mobile suit was originally designed to be piloted by Naturals. Think of the its potential if we could get it running, even if it's only for a single operation. And if we keep the pilot alive…" she turned to look at the Coordinator, her eyes hardening, "If we play our cards right…he might just make things easier for us."