Heero sat in the cabin of Zechs' shuttle, staring out the window. In the distance, growing larger swiftly, was Jupiter's massive, storm-wracked surface and, like a dust-mote floating before it, Io. Odin was on his lap. Heero held the excited infant so he could see MDI's complex rushing up to meet them.
From the cockpit, Zechs' voice came over the PA. "We've got clearance. Once you've handed the baby over to Forbes, we need to get you back to the cluster as soon as possible so you can get started on sec-core."
Handed over the baby.
"And if she tries to detain me for some reason?" Miraculously, his voice was steady.
Odin squealed and slapped the window. He'd seen another shuttle.
"Then I'll trust in your infamous ability to escape from anywhere. Just don't take too long. As soon as the word comes from Loki, we move."
The shuttle was diverted from the usual bays to the top security terminal. Odin seemed to catch some of Heero's tension, plopping himself down in Heero's lap and clinging tightly to his sleeve. Through the window, Heero saw troops lined up around the docking platforms. Odin whimpered.
"Don't worry, Odin," he whispered. There was an ache in his chest, almost as strong as ache that came when he and Duo were separated. "I'll do whatever I can to get you back when this is all over. I won't let them keep you and that's a promise."
Zechs emerged from the cockpit when the shuttle powered down. Heero rose, Odin's arms tight around his neck. There was an uncertain feeling in his stomach. He held the baby very tightly.
The armed men watched silently as he and Zechs left the shuttle and walked across the bay to the elevators. Two of the soldiers got into the car with them and everyone went up, no one speaking. Even Odin was uncharacteristically silent, thumb in his mouth, staring at the men with round eyes.
When the elevator stopped, the doors opened into a luxurious lobby. An archway in the opposite wall revealed part of another room that seemed mostly window and skylight. There were more men waiting just outside the elevator. They stepped neatly in front of Zechs. "Ms. Forbes wants to speak to Mr. Yuy alone, sir."
Zechs looked like he might object, but the doors closed. The soldiers -- and there were six of them -- closed ranks in front of it. Heero set his jaw grimly. With Odin clinging to his shoulder, he turned his back and walked through the archway.
Halia Forbes waited by the window. "Bring him closer," she said.
He walked to her, seeing the tension in her posture and the way her shoulders abruptly sagged when she got a good look at Odin. Just for an instant, there was something raw and needy in her expression. Then it was gone, and he saw only the cool, detached businesswoman. She inclined her head slightly and Heero saw she was wearing a tiny transmitter on the lapel of her suit. "It's him," she said into it.
Through the archway a moment later came a group of doctors and nurses. Heero's arms tightened around Odin, who begin to whimper again.
"Can he stay with me?" The words were out before Heero thought about them. "He'd still be on Io."
"He's not yours," said Halia coldly. "It will be better for both of you to make a clean break of it."
"But he is mine." Heero took a step back as a doctor reached for the baby. "He's got my genes! Genes you used without my permission!"
Halia stared at him a moment, then at Odin, who clutched Heero tightly. Her face twisted. "Not only yours."
Something inside Heero turned over. He was suddenly cold.
"Maybe it's because you were created to serve humans," she went on, "that you would automatically assume I wished only to create more servants. Maybe you have been programmed so you can't think any higher than that." Her gaze turned thoughtful. "But I don't think in such humble terms, Mr. Yuy. The human genes of that baby are mine. MDI01 isn't the first of a race of slaves; he's first in a line of kings."
"Where has Zechs been lately" Hilde was flopped on Trowa's couch. There was an open book face down on her belly. "I haven't seen him for days."
Their shift was over and, it being payday, everyone gathered as usual at Trowa's before going their separate ways. Wufei had appropriated his usual armchair. Sally sat with Hilde's head in her lap, absently winding a short, dark curl around her finger and talking shop with Quatre who shelled shrimp at the dining table. The small apartment was fragrant with saffron. It was paella tonight, a luxury and only affordable for most of them on payday.
"Maybe he had to go to Earth for some reason." Trowa appeared in the kitchen door, spoon in hand. "To talk to the Council again."
"It's useless," Wufei said. "They don't believe him. He's wasting his time."
"I thought the Dzril would be here by now." Hilde rolled onto her side. The book fell to the floor, unheeded. "After Zechs and Wilder destroyed their scout patrol, I was sure they would attack immediately."
Wufei's phone buzzed. He lifted it to his ear. "What?"
"Chang? We've got a big problem." It was Ross, one of the main flight engineers. The number on his phone told Wufei the call was coming from the flight control deck.
"A whole bunch of MDI security guards just ran into the hangar! Is there some kinda security drill going on?"
Wufei's heart plunged and he lurched to his feet. "No," he said. "What are they doing?"
Outside the apartment, the muffled shriek of the emergency alarm began.
"They're rounding up the techs and they -- fuck! They're here! They've got guns and ...."
The connection broke.
"Trouble," said Wufei.
They stared at each other in dismay. Pounding started on Trowa's front door.
"What do we do?" asked Hilde, eyes wide.
Wufei didn't reply, only shut down the computer at once. Quatre, with a quick look around, went out to the front room. A moment later the pounding stopped and they heard voices. Trowa's mouth thinned and took a step toward the door. No sooner had he done so then Quatre returned. One of MDI's security chiefs was with him. The man had his sidearm drawn. Quatre's face was absolutely still.
"There's been a change of management," said Qautre, voice carefully devoid of expression. "As of right now, MDI has this cluster in lock-down. Everyone is being asked to return to their own quarters and to turn on the TV for an informational broadcast from MDI."
"Going for a walk?" Treize looked up in surprise. "Me, too?"
"We've been in here for almost a week. Aren't you goin' stir-crazy?" Then Duo remembered; Treize's movements were restricted all the time. Thoughtfully he regarded the man with the infamous face. "We'll get you a cap and sunglasses. Just wear your hair loose like that, and you should be fine."
"Where are we going?" Treize asked.
"I need to talk to someone."
Duo laughed. "No."
It was disconcerting how everything in the old neighborhood was both familiar and strange. Sometimes Duo felt as if he was seeing it through the eyes of a stranger. In a way, it was true. He was different. The war and its aftermath had changed him irrevocably, not only body but soul.
Over there was where the street market had been. It had been as illegal as hell, with merchandise of questionable quality, but during the war it had been all they'd had. He remembered how he and the others had always tried to race through it at least once a week, snatching bruised apples or grabbing sausages before the proprietors could stop them. Once Solo had stolen a entire produce truck foolishly left unattended. It had been hilarious fun driving it through the streets and they'd eaten well that night.
His feet needed no prompting to turn onto Sixth Avenue, to walk along the littered sidewalk north toward Harrow. Treize didn't speak, occupied with looking around in fascination. The buildings here were in better condition and most were occupied. Across the street were bars and a dingy café.
Duo's heart beat a little faster as he turned onto Harrow. The past washed through him, taking on a crystal clarity. The wall around the old armory was still there, covered with graffiti, and the tenement with the concrete lion's face over the door: "His Majesty, King Boggletooth," Sister Helen had called it.
Then Duo stopped. The church had indeed been rebuilt. The rectory was in a different spot, but otherwise, it looked just the same.
"Are you religious?" Treize asked.
Duo shook his head. Without another word, he walked up the sidewalk and pushed on the door. He half expected it to be locked; Father Maxwell had kept it open, but that was rare, especially in a place like the slums of L2. To his surprise, the door swung inward.
"I used to live here," Duo told Treize absently. He walked across the flagged stones to the double doors. Beyond lay the main sanctuary with its statues of the Virgin Mother, the crucifix over the altar, the candles. He shut the door.
There had been a small side chapel once. Duo had sat in it often to "reflect" after some misdemeanor or another. Now he walked down the hall and there it was, the door slightly ajar.
"Is anyone here?" Treize asked curiously.
"I don't know," Duo replied, not caring. He went inside. The chapel had been redecorated and for just an instant, he was disappointed. Then he caught sight of the plaque by the door. "The Robert Maxwell Chapel."
On either side of the altar, a small niche had been built into the wall. Each housed a bronze urn. Duo walked slowly down the center aisle to the front. The urn on the left was marked with another small plaque. "In Grateful Memory of Sister Helen Janssen." The other urn bore Father Maxwell's name.
"Did you know them?" asked Treize, watching Duo run a finger over the etched letters.
"I thought I saw a drinking fountain out there," said Treize with a narrow look at Duo's face. "I'll be back in a minute,"
Duo barely heard, head flooded with memories. When Treize was gone, he went up to the altar and, after a second, dropped to his knees. It seemed a natural thing to clasp his hands together and bow his head. But it was not a god he addressed; it was the soul of someone much more real to him.
Hey, Father, I'm back.
Maybe it was his imagination, but it seemed to Duo that a warm feeling settled over him.
I ain't been very good, I'm afraid. You prob'ly know about the Gundams, right?" His interlocking fingers tightened. "Well, guess what, Father? I'm gonna be breakin' some more rules. Big ones. I'm hopin' you can forgive me for this, too.
I told a lie, Father. I told Heero that I'd stay here out of the way, but I ain't gonna do it. He said once that he'd never lie to me unless it was the only way to save my life. Now he and the kid are in trouble; I can feel it. I got a plan, but it's even crazier than usual. I know I don't deserve it after all I've done and all I'm gonna do, but I could really, really use your help on this one, Father, and maybe a little help from your boss, too, okay?
The silence in the chapel deepened. In his heart, the tumult stilled. The warm feeling he'd noticed seemed to grow and spread through every part of him.
A sound behind him made him look up and around. In the doorway stood a priest. His face was in shadow and, for just a second, Duo's heart jumped, but it wasn't Father Maxwell's apparition, only a tall, heavy-set stranger who smiled at Duo and quietly withdrew. Outside the chapel, Duo heard Treize's voice and the answering rumble of the stranger's voice. He thought about Heero and Odin. Taking a deep breath, feeling easier than he had in days, Duo left the chapel.
Zechs leaned back against the steel wall, eyes half closed, listening to the sounds beyond the door of his cell. It was mostly quiet. Now and then, the echoing tread of boots could be heard, but they hadn't stopped. No one had opened the door since he'd been locked up.
They had considered worse case scenarios back on Loki, but they had all figured it would Heero who might be detained. It had never occurred to any of them, that she might imprison him, as well. But, as Wilder had pointed out, Halia Forbes was not behaving rationally.
In the end, it didn't matter what her motivations were. He had to get out of here. He had to tell the others about Operation Robin Hood. MDI must not have the Gundams!
A red light winked on the wall to his left. Dinner time, he thought with a wry smile. The food in MDI's high-security detention center was appalling, but it broke up the numbing monotony of the place. He unwound his long body and went to the dispenser where the plastic and shrink-wrapped bundle waited at the bottom of the tube. Inside was a squashed sandwich, a multi-vitamin, a fiber-cap and a plastic bottle of water. He returned to his bench with the day's lone meal.
What the hell was Halia up to? She was taking a huge in risk in holding him prisoner. His title as king of Sanc might be merely ceremonial, but he had power and influence and there would be questions. She couldn't afford the kind of scrutiny his disappearance would bring.
The footsteps outside stopped. Zechs nearly dropped the water bottle as the door was pushed open. Four guards came in with drawn guns, filling the cell. Making no effort to rise, Zechs saw Halia Forbes among them.
"I'd invite you to sit down." Zechs gestured to the bare cell, "But as you can see..."
She made no effort at courtesy. "If I return you to the T-Gundam project, will you swear loyalty to me and the company?" she asked.
He didn't even bother to answer that.
"That's what I thought. You always were foolishly chivalrous in your ideas of honor and war. I'll never know what Treize saw in you!"
"Treize was not so different." His fingers tightened around the bottle. "You imprisoned him, too."
"He lost his way." Something flickered in her face. "It's too bad. His was the genius that drove Oz's success. Once he'd turned his back on us, all was lost."
"What do you want, Halia?"
"Cooperation. I need functioning Gundams, and soon."
"What?" That got him off his feet. The guards immediately pushed forward, placing themselves between their CEO and the prisoner.
"Project 9 has been annexed. It's now under direct corporate control."
"Are you..." Zechs caught himself and took a deep breath. "Why? You've got your clone back. We were working together just fine. Why do this?"
"One of the hallmarks of effective management," she said, "is flexibility, the willingness to alter one's procedures at a moment's notice should the situation demand it. I'm sure, should your alien menace actually appear, they can be used as you intended. On the other hand, I, too, have a use for the mobile suits, but only if they're completed." Her voice chilled. "My people tell me that the FTL engines and plasma cannons have been taken to Loki. Send for them. I want them installed immediately."
"You are insane." Zechs took a long drink of water.
"I can make it happen," she reminded him.
He laughed aloud. "Not a chance, Madam Chairman. Do you think I'm a complete fool? What's the hurry? Did someone on the Security Council refuse to be bribed?"
Her slender nostrils flared, mouth going to a thin line.
"You could try attacking Loki," he went on, taking bleak enjoyment from her frustration, "but I'm sure your spies have noticed the additional troops, including by now, Winner's Maganac. Nor will the UESN look away from a second attack. Without the FTL drives and PCs, all you have are ten Gundams controlled by hostile pilots."
She slapped him, knocking his head back and splitting his lip. "Convince him," she snarled at the guards and, trembling with rage, stalked from the cell.
The high-pitched beeping from the television drew Wufei out of his book. He looked automatically to see MDI's logo on the screen. It was all the TV showed anymore, the damned logo or the faces of MDI security personnel issuing directives.
"Stand By For Special Communication."
Wufei sighed. His concentration was broken. He looked back up at the words on the screen and wondered what it was this time.
At the moment, everyone working on the T-Gundam project was under house arrest. They were locked down while MDI finished installing new security devices throughout the cluster. There was still telephone service, but no one doubted for a second that every word was being recorded.
The screen flickered again. Wufei straightened. Halia Forbes! This was new.
MDI's owner sat straight and composed against the backdrop of her palatial office. "Good afternoon," she said. "I do apologize for the inconvenience of the security lockdown, but it was necessary to accommodate the restructuring of the T-Gundam project within MDI.
"Our company is going through a delicate, transitional phase and one which we believe will put MDI in an unassailable position of market dominance for generations to come. In order to accomplish this, some steps are being implemented which some of you may find upsetting. I assure you, these policies are only temporary. We ask only for your patience and cooperation and I personally promise you that you will be well compensated.
"Project Nine has been moved from subcontract status to Class One corporation control. You will shortly be sent a new contract. Once you have signed, you will receive a new work schedule and will be allowed free movement throughout the cluster. Some restrictions will remain in place, however, since the project is designated Class One. For a complete list of what is or is not permitted, please access MDI's Administration kiosk."
The picture winked out, replaced by their damned logo. He really, really hated that logo.
It had taken nine guards to subdue Heero, to slam an injector against his neck and knock him out. The last thing he remembered before the drug took him was Forbes shrieking that they weren't to damage him too much, that he was MDI's future.
When he woke, he was face down on a narrow bed. Rolling over, he sat up. Dizziness washed through him and there was an unpleasant, metallic taste at the back of his tongue. IST; it was an old Oz favorite. Fortunately, it was also one of the many prisoner-control drugs to which Heero had been desensitized during the war. Designed to disorient its victims for hours, it was already starting to clear his system.
The only illumination came from a nightlight in the tiny adjoining bathroom. There wasn't much to illuminate. A bed, a table, a chair -- it was identical to the cell on Europa where MDI had kept him until the court had given him to Duo.
What the hell was Forbes doing? He and Zechs had expected some sort of double dealing, but nothing like this. It was strange behavior for an otherwise cold, deliberate businesswoman. It was more like ...
Like a mother.
On the wall beside the bed was a basic control panel. A red light on it blinked steadily. The tiny screen of a vid-phone flickered to life.
"I see you're already awake. Impressive." Forbes looked out at him. "I just wanted to give you a little bit of news." The malice in her voice was unmistakable. She smiled, but the poor quality of the image could not hide the hard glitter in her eyes. "The High Court just delivered its verdict in our case."
Heero's breath stopped. He sat on the edge of the bed, his world suspended.
"It seems you won. You're human after all. Congratulations." She laughed softly and terminated the connection.
Duo had been gone a long time. Treize sat on the rugs in their "parlor," watching the little TV. Out in the streets, brakes squealed and someone shrieked. He barely noticed such things anymore. How odd that one could become so inured to human misery. What would Wufei think about this place? Had he ever been here? He must know about it; he was Duo's friend.
Wufei. With a sigh, Treize pulled his knees to his chest and rested his chin on them. He stared blankly at the screen, seeing only that slender face with its fine, chiseled features.
If only I was the first Treize.
But if he had been the first Treize, he would have simply taken Wufei, whether Wufei wished it or not. The conquering would have been sufficient for the general and, even though the thought held some small, prurient excitement for him, too, Treize wanted more than physical surrender. Much more.
You feel too deeply. In one of the first Treize's earlier journals, that phrase had been written onto a page over and over until the pen had broken through the paper.
Treize's wry contemplation was interrupted by clattering at the door. It was Duo.
"Hey." He grinned at Treize, but there was a curious, disquieting sparkle in his eyes.
Treize nodded, puzzled and a little uneasy. For the past couple of days, Duo had been acting strangely. Preoccupied, he was often caught staring into space. Other times, he disappeared for hours at a time, returning smelling of cigarette smoke.
"Hey," Treize replied, watching the long-haired man move restlessly around their small room. "Is something wrong?"
"Feel like goin' on a little adventure?"
"What sort of adventure?" Treize eyed him warily. "I don't know if I trust that look, Maxwell."
"I've have a plan, sorta." Duo took a deep breath. "If I tell you something, will you promise not to laugh?"
"Maybe," Treize replied.
"Right." Duo pressed his lips together, took another deep breath, then said, "Okay. Um. It's like this. There is this really enormous empire out in space and it's ruled by these guys called the Dzril..."
Wufei signed the new contract. It was enough to win him release from his apartment, but not enough to get him anywhere near the T-Gundams. They were sealed away behind a small army of MDI's soldiers. Temporarily grounded, Wufei found himself assigned to routine data entry. Trowa and Quatre were saddled with jobs just as ignominious.
An eerie semblance of normality had settled over the cluster. People put in their eight hours, then were free to roam around the Commons, to eat at the mess, watch the movie, work out at the gym: all the things they would have normally done. But everywhere were the gray uniforms of MDI security and all communication off-world had to approved and censored. The calm was surface only.
Data entry was stupefying work. For the moment, however, the pilots had agreed to go along with MDI's edicts. Neither Zechs nor Heero had been heard from, but they both were surely on Io by now. They might even be prisoners.
Wufei finished the last of his assigned task and got up.
Wufei stopped. The D-E supervisor, one of the MDI invaders, scowled at him. "Chang, isn't it?"
Wufei said nothing.
"You're HR. Where are you going?"
HR. High risk. "To get something to eat."
"I don't know yet."
On one hand, it was flattering to know MDI found them so dangerous. On the other, he, Quatre and Trowa were watched like hawks.
"Make sure you log in wherever you are."
It was hard to hold his temper against such humiliating treatment, but Wufei was not the young hothead of a few years ago. He could bide his time. Shrugging, he walked out, the officer's glare burning into his back.
"If you don't like it," the man shouted after him, "you could always wear the spotter!"
Like hell. Wufei's skin crawled just thinking of having to wear one of MDI's electronic locators.
Trowa, Quatre, Hilde and Sally were waiting for him in front of the entrance to the hydroponics and greenhouse domes. Wufei immediately registered his arrival on the newly installed security terminal by the doors. Not far away, a round-faced man in a sweatshirt and jeans was pretending to study the information on a wall-mounted guide screen. Their tail.
Wufei walked with the others along narrow paths winding through dense greenery. The air was thick with humidity. Hilde slipped away to act as decoy for the agent following them. Wufei heard her laugher from time to time on the other side of the dome. The rest of them found one of the mobile misting machines deep inside the dome. It floated gently above a date palm, dispensing its localized rain onto the broad leaves. The moisture thwarted the ability of surveillance equipment to get accurate reads, so they kept close to it; no one wanted MDI listening in.
"What are we going to do?" Sally asked. "We can't let them have the Gundams!"
There was gloomy silence.
"We could take them," Wufei said finally. "But it would be bloody."
"Has anyone heard from Heero or Zechs?" Quatre asked without much hope. Trowa moved aside a hanging branch to let the smaller man pass.
"No." Trowa hunched his shoulders, "but I think it's safe to assume they're in trouble. We haven't been able to get any messages out or in. What about you guys?"
Sally and Wufei shook their heads.
"People outside will ask questions soon," Sally said. "Noin and I exchange mail all the time. Forbes is risking serious trouble."
"Maybe she isn't afraid of the government." Trowa's quiet comment made the others fall silent.
"MDI has the Gundams. It would be nothing for her to get mid-level guns on them and have a fighting force superior to anything in the pacifist sphere. She can do what she pleases and there is no one to stop her. In fact, she has been able to do so since the Gundams were flight-worthy."
War again. Wufei's stomach turned. "We have to get them away now," he said quietly and emphatically. "The longer we wait, the tighter MDI will draw the noose."
Sally frowned, clearly unhappy with Wufei's proposition. "Where will we take them?" she asked. "And what about Heero and Zechs? We need them!"
"Don't forget about the beam cannons," added Trowa.
"Shit," whispered Sally, paling. "That's right."
Wufei's heart plunged. He, too, had forgotten about the ring of big guns hidden in the hills around the plain. MDI claimed they were defensive, but they could be offensive just as easily. "We'll have to hack into the Admin computer's security core and de-activate them. We could avoid them, probably, but some of the other pilots are pretty inexperienced."
"Getting into sec-core won't be easy," muttered Trowa. "MDI will have increased the security after Heero managed to hack it and find their biolab."
"Easy or not, we don't have a choice." Quatre straightened. Ahead, Hilde appeared. The MDI agent close behind and not making much of an effort to be subtle. "I'll see what I can do about that. The rest of you, see if you can find out what's happened to Zechs and Heero."
Duo and Treize stole a small FedEx transport on L2's commercial dock. Duo filed a fake flight plan with L2's port administration and took off for Loki, Treize riding copilot, just in case. But Duo did just fine, thanks to Tony, and if he was a little shaky, if his mind wanted to wander -- well, it was a small price to pay for the chance to be back in space and awake for it .
One thing about the big courier companies -- their ships were fast. It had taken a hellish twenty-eight hours to make the distance on the Jellyroll. The courier made it in less than ten. Duo got on the comm with Loki's port admin and, pretty damn quick after that, with J.
"Why am I not surprised?" came the crackling old voice. "Goddamned loose cannon."
Pargan met them at the private space dock. With the old man at the wheel, the tranquil, miniature hills of the Peacecraft's private section slipping by the window, Duo's felt the oddest sensation -- like coming home. They followed a curve and came upon the first sight of the old house. Although Duo kept up easy conversations with Treize and Pargan, his thoughts were full of those too-short weeks when he and Heero were here, lazing away the days by the pool or teasing Odin on the big, velvet-covered bed.
Once inside the house, Pargan said to Duo, "Dr. J requests that you stop by his office as soon as possible. I'll see Mr. Kushrenada to a room where he can, er, freshen up." Pargan allowed the barest flicker of distress to touch his features at their disheveled state. What the hell did he expect? Their apartment hadn't come with a shower.
Treize, with a wink, headed off after a wide-eyed maid, leaving Duo to follow the old servant out of the foyer. Almost at once, the pristine elegance he remembered vanished. The place was a mess. Everywhere he looked were power and transmission cables. Clumps of computer equipment stood here and there. Wires ran along the ceiling like the web of some drug-crazed spider.
"What the hell is all this, Pargan?"
"The professors are preparing some sort of experiment, I believe, Mr. Maxwell. Ah, here we are."
The double doors led into the formal dining room. Duo took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
He stopped, jaw sagging. Here, too, the furniture had been removed. Now the place was full of computers and laboratory benches. In the center of the room was a machine whose purpose Duo hadn't a clue. All the cables and wires seemed to come here. The hair on his body lifted with the electrical fields being generated around him.
"What the fuck?"
Except for J, the room was deserted. The old man was hunched over a bench. He had an enormous magnifier screwed into the left eye of his goggles. It made him look even more grotesque than usual as he turned to look at Duo.
"What are you up to?"
"What are you up to, old man?" Duo picked his way through the cables to the bench. J was putting together some delicate construction of circuitry.
"Heero told you about Operation Robin Hood?"
"Yeah." That damned bug-eye lens fixed on him unwaveringly. "But he also said the station you're buildin' ain't finished yet! Where are you gonna hide the damn things?"
"No shit." Duo looked around. "So this is some kind of a shield, some way to keep everyone from knowing they're here?"
"More or less," agreed J. "Why have you come back? Heero said you would be staying where you were."
"I'm goin' to Io. Heero's in trouble, I can feel it. He woulda sent me some kinda message by now if he was okay."
"He is in trouble," agreed J. "An hour ago, we received a communication from MDI, demanding that we return to Io immediately and bring all remaining components of the T-Gundams with us. There's been nothing heard from anyone and messages sent to our friends are bouncing back." The man frowned suddenly and he leaned forward. "How did you get here, boy? Who piloted your stolen chariot?"
J straightened. Duo forced himself to return the old man's stare.
"And how did you manage that?"
Duo shrugged. "Ran into an old friend on L2. He put me in line with the local branch of Midnight Pharmaceuticals. I got something that works real well." He took a deep breath. His hands were sweating. He wiped them off on his jeans. "The important thing is getting Heero."
"The only thing that 'works real well,'" J said in a deadly quiet voice, "is somatine. Do you have any idea what you're doing?"
"Yeah." Hell, yes, he did.
"You were medicated through the worst of the withdrawal the first time," J reminded him. "You have no idea what it did to your body then. A second time and your entire nervous system could collapse!"
"Or not," countered Duo. "I'm goin', J. No matter what you think, Heero ain't just a fuckin' tool to me! I'm only here to pick up a couple things and I'll be movin' on. Just don't get in my way."
The old man leaned back and took out the magnifier. For an unnerving moment, Duo saw the implant screwed into his eye socket. J replaced it with his usual lens and Duo found himself confronted at last by the more familiar, but equally enigmatic, countenance.
"You don't know a thing about how I feel when it comes to Heero," J said in a hard, level voice.
Duo, ready to launch into another tirade, heard something that made him shut his mouth. J moved the discarded magnifier an inch or two across the bench; the muscles of his face were tight.
"There were a thousand synthetics in the project." J turned away from Duo, shifting his gaze to the contraption in the middle of the room. "One thousand one-year-old boys, all of them identical, bright, happy. Except for one, the first of the line, the prototype."
The old man shook his head, smiling slightly. "That child was so solemn. He would sit in a crowd of the others on the floor of the laboratory nursery and look up at me with this little frown. Almost like he knew what sort of life we were planning for them. Then the order came from administration. The project was terminated. The subjects had to be terminated, as well."
The old man's voice was steady; his face gave nothing away, but his human hand trembled as it fidgeted with the magnifier. "Thirty of us did it. Rolling carts loaded down with injectors and vials of euthane, we overdosed each of those little boys while they slept. But when the time came to euthanize Heero, he woke up. He looked straight at me and he smiled. I had the injector in my..." J broke off. His artificial hand tightened with a crack that made Duo jump.
"Heero is very precious to me," J went on, still speaking calmly. "If you have a plan with a reasonable chance of success, I will consider it."
Several days after waking up in the cell, Heero got his first visit from MDI, six well-built guards who kept their weapons drawn as they stood beside the open door and ordered him out. They marched him down a corridor and through a door into a section he recognized all too well. Sterile white walls and ceiling, a floor clean enough to eat off, the air so purified it had no smell -- MDI's top-secret biolab, rebuilt.
Had Zechs made it back to the cluster to tell the others about Operation Robin Hood? Heero needed to get out of here. He eyed his escort appraisingly. There were only six.
Then Heero heard a sound that went straight to his heart. Muffled behind one of the doors, there came a baby's fretful wail. He stopped in his tracks. Grunting, one of the men behind him gave him a shove forward.
The crying got louder as they proceeded down the corridor. Heero tried to ignore it, turning his head away when they passed a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only." But even then he could hear the fear and desolation in the hoarse little voice. His heart hurt and anger shook him.
It was hard to know who was more surprised, the guards or himself, when Heero suddenly slammed into the man beside him, using all of his strength. He heard bones crunch; the man screamed and went down. The others were turning, reacting just an instant too slowly. He kicked the legs out from underneath a second and smashed a third guard into the opposite wall. One of the men cursed and got off a shot. Heero jumped aside, but not in time to avoid getting singed by it. Catching his breath on the sudden, sharp pain, he swept up a weapon from one of the fallen officers. The surviving guards ran for cover.
It was his moment to run, to blast his way up through layer after layer of MDI security until he found Halia Forbes herself. But the cry from the other room pulled at him and without understanding why, Heero turned and kicked open the nursery door.
The room was much like the one he had destroyed weeks ago, walls of pastel yellow, as spacious and as airy as any place could be so far underground. It was spotlessly clean. Heero saw a large playpen, toys scattered everywhere. He saw a bright blue padded high chair, mobiles over the crib. Surrounding the room were offices and labs, startled faces staring out of observation windows. Heero's attention, however, was on the crib and the baby with the messy black hair and red, tear-swollen face.
Odin had fallen silent at the first sight of Heero and now pulled himself up to stand at the crib rail. "DA!" he shrieked, shaking the rail for all he was worth. "DA!"
Heero walked swiftly across the room to the frantic child. A small voice in his head, his better sense, howled at him to be gone, to get the hell away from here before more soldiers came. But all he could do was grab the child and hold him tightly. Odin snuggled close, small fists bunching in Heero's shirt, hiccuping as he caught his breath from what must have been constant screaming. "Troublemaker," Heero whispered into the soft, sweaty hair.
Other people came: doctors and nurses. No one seemed to know what to do. Heero felt Odin's heart beating hard and fast, spasms shaking the infant's small body. Guards burst into the room. Keeping the baby tight to his chest with one arm, shielding Odin's body with his own, Heero spun around, gun aimed at them. Odin began to whimper.
"STOP!" shouted one of the doctors. He was apparently of some rank for the soldiers did so at once. "You're Heero Yuy?"
Heero swung the gun to cover him, then back. The doctor got the message and stopped, holding up empty hands placatingly. "It's all right. No one wants the child to get hurt. Miles! Get your men outside."
"Just do it! I'll be responsible!"
Looking very unhappy, Miles waved at the others and they retreated back into the corridor, shutting the door. The doctor looked at Heero and the baby.
"I'm Chad Bellweather, the chief internist on this project. Do you think you could get the boy to eat?"
Heero's eyes narrowed.
"He's been refusing food and spending a lot of time crying."
"You haven't been feeding him?" The gun shook.
"You didn't hear me," Bellweather replied calmly. "He refuses to eat. It is not in our interest for MDI01 to be malnourished."
"His name is Odin."
Bellweather's eyebrows rose. There were grins and titters from the others. "We've been calling him Tommy, but given the power of his lungs, Odin is a better name. Will you do it? Will you see if he'll eat for you? It's not like you're going to get out of here." The doctor looked pointedly at the door.
Heero looked around suspiciously, but all he saw were varying degrees of hope and anxiety. Even if what they were doing was reprehensible, they seemed to genuinely care about Odin. He remembered the old picture of himself and J by the Japanese shrine. J -- who had started out to create a piece of advanced machinery.
He thought about the fact that, by now, MDI's entire security mechanism was piling up outside the room. He'd lost his opportunity. Was he out of his fucking mind? Odin burrowed his head under Heero's chin. The child's tears were wet against his skin.
"All right," he agreed. "Bring the food and put it there."
"We have no weapons in the lab. It would be madness to keep such things around a small child."
But that was more trusting that Heero could be. In the end, they brought the food. He set the gun down within his reach, but out of Odin's, and picked up the spoon.
Odin gobbled everything down, nearly choking in his haste and hunger. "You're an idiot," Heero told him, shoveling in yet another spoonful of mashed peas. Their audience cheered quietly.
Maybe he could use the doctor as a hostage.
"We need to do a routine exam." Bellweather looked hopeful. "Would you mind?"
The door opened before Heero could answer. Bellweather whitened and took a hasty step back. Halia Forbes! Instinctively, Heero's arm tightened around Odin and his gun was up in a heartbeat, aimed straight at her.
She wasn't looking at him, but at Odin, who beamed back at her from the safety of Heero's embrace. "DA!" he informed her, waving his arms, pudding-smeared face wreathed in smiles.
One look into her eyes and Heero discarded his idea of using Bellweather as a hostage. She wouldn't care about anyone.
"You allowed this?" she asked the doctor. There were red spots on her expensive, sculpted cheekbones. Slender nostrils flared.
To his credit, Bellweather didn't flinch. "Of course I did. It's been nearly two days since we've been able to get him to eat! He's dehydrated, anoxic from his extended crying episodes, and extremely depressed. In fact, Ms. Forbes, it's my scientific opinion that MDI01 and Mr. Yuy here have formed the parental bond and it would be advantageous to the child's development if ..."
"Get him away from the baby!" MDI's chairwoman was shaking with rage.
Odin scrambled around in Heero's lap to put his arms around Heero's neck.
Shoot her! Shoot her now! Heero's finger tightened on the trigger, hatred and panic urging him to pull it, to let the chips fall where they may. Something made him glance down at Odin, who watched everything, terror in the wide eyes.
Maybe there was another way. Heero felt Odin's heart speeding in response to his own. "We're leaving," he told her, "and you're coming with us."
Behind him, among the doctors and nurses, someone cried out in protest. He started to turn, only to feel a sting in the back of his neck, and coldness spreading out from it. No!
"Damn you!" he heard Bellweather shout. Heero's pulse started to race; his fingertips numbed.
"Be careful!" Halia's harsh order. "Make sure he doesn't fall on the..."
Then the darkness came and he drowned in it.
"We're here. Finally." Duo, in the pilot's seat, looked over at Treize. Treize nodded, powering down the shuttle's main engine.
It felt odd not to be sick, Duo thought, not to be awash in pain and misery. There was only the beating of his heart, a little faster, a little less steady than usual. He grinned at Treize. "You're lookin' good, General."
Treize gave him a wan smile.
"It's your show now." Duo encouraged. "You can do it! Remember, you've memorized everything about the first Treize. It'll be easy!"
It was spooky what a difference the haircut made. The suit didn't hurt either. Treize looked older, more sophisticated. More like the old Treize.
"Halia Forbes knew the first Treize all her life," Treize muttered. "She'll know the difference."
"Hey. Attitude, Treize, attitude. So what if you forget something once in a while? You were blown up, remember?"
Treize nodded. "Blown up," he repeated faintly.
"Just remember our story," Duo said.
Treize nodded unhappily.
"Quit worryin'! Just convince her you're him and then get your ass to the T-Gundam cluster and make sure everyone knows what's goin' on. I know you can pull it off!" Duo stuck out his hand. Treize took it. His fingers were ice cold. "Good luck!"
"And to you," said Treize. He straightened, squaring his shoulders, and headed for the door.
It was one hell of a favor to ask Treize, and Duo prayed that the clone was up to it. Treize was only three years old, for chrissakes. But this wasn't going to be easy and Duo needed as much of a distraction as Treize could give him. Still, deep down, he felt kinda bad about it, knowing how much Treize hated his namesake.
While the clone walked into the lion's jaws, Duo hurried from the cabin to the shuttle's small cargo hold. A half dozen large crates were tied against the far wall. All but one of them contained machine parts. Quickly he pulled the top off the empty one and jumped in. Closing the lid over him, he tightened the screws to hold it fast. Then, heart pounding, he waited.
This had better work. Even for him, this was a crazy plan.
If Heero wasn't in trouble, he was gonna kick Duo's ass. And even if he was in trouble, Duo was in deep shit. Tough, Yuy. There are no double standards here, buddy.
The trampling of heavy boots made him hunker down in the crate. Duo held his breath. He heard them trying to move the lids. He pulled the gun out of his jacket.
"They're bolted shut," someone said. "Nothing here but sprockets. Let's go."
"You think he's the real deal?"
"I dunno. Never saw the guy except in pictures."
"Forbes sure got pale."
"Pale?" There was a snicker. "I thought the bitch would piss her expensive panties right there!" The footsteps and voices faded.
Duo waited for his pulse to slow and for absolute silence. Then, warily, he unscrewed the top and peered out. The empty hold met his gaze. Returning to the cockpit long enough to retrieve the backpack under the pilot's seat, he began moving crates. Beneath them was the maintenance. It let him into the shuttle's underbelly. His key-chain flashlight revealed cables, the landing gear housing and an assortment of other equipment. He crawled through it all until he came to the emergency hatch. Tapping out the code, he waited for the seal to retract and the pocket of air hiss out. There was a click, and the outer hatch opened. Cold, ozone-tainted air rushed in.
"The best place to access MDI's central security computer will be the receiving office," G had told him. "It's just inside the main port entrance of the Administration dome. I'm afraid you'll have to hack sec-core to get the layout of the area where they're probably keeping Heero."
Duo was grateful for their help in that and other things, but preparation for this mission had taken far longer than he had liked.
"You only have once to get it right," J had warned. "Go off half-cocked and you'll blow everything. Heero won't thank you for that!"
Old bastard. Shrugging into the backpack, Duo dropped silently from the hatch to the deck. A quick look around revealed only a single pair of legs standing near the ramp. The guard was facing away from him.
Like a shadow in the great, gloomy space, Duo slipped away from the ship. Keeping to the deepest pockets of darkness, he made his way through the cavernous bay toward a line of windows at his left. They were dark except for the faint glow of computers on the other side. It proved to be the recieving office. Picking the lock was surprisingly easy.
Duo found a place where he could stay out of sight of the windows and two ceiling-mounted security cameras. He dragged a keyboard down to the floor with him and shifted the monitor around so it, too, was faced away from the cameras. Now, he thought at MDI, booting up the computer, let's see how good you are.
Treize had never been so scared in his life, not even when he'd left the hospital to go to Bavaria with Mariameia. He must have been crazy to agree to this, but back on Loki, he'd seen in the old scientist's face that it was go with Duo or be handed over to the UESN. Even then he might have refused had it not been for Duo's indignant protest: "But he ain't Treize! He's my friend!"
The need to hold on to his easy, careless smile kept Treize from dithering as he stood in the middle of a ring of MDI guards, looking down at Halia Forbes. "This is getting out of hand, Hals," he drawled. "You have your clone. Now, give me back my T-Gundams."
The woman he'd only seen in pictures and vids glared back at him. "What kind of a sick joke is this? Who the hell are you? Treize Kushrenada is dead. I saw the autopsy reports!"
"Of course you did." For the umpteenth time, Treize's mind ticked through everything he'd ever read about this woman. "And you believed them, just as we planned."
Emotional reaction and skepticism clashed in her expression. "Why? Why wouldn't I know about it?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Hals! Why do you think?"
He watched a flush creep over her face. She had been among those who had voted for the General's ouster all those year's ago. The first Treize had not been surprised, but he had railed about it for some time in his diaries.
"This is a trick," she snapped. "Some kind of expensive surgery, tutoring...."
"...a clone?" It was a risky comment and he waited, heart pounding, while she stared at him, white-lipped. Everyone claimed that he, Regina and Damon were the best kept secrets of the Sphere. On the other hand, Forbes was wealthy and powerful enough to have intelligence even at the very heart of the UESN.
"Right," she snorted. "Even if Treize was cloned before the war, it would only make you what -- fifteen, sixteen years old? No, my money is on surgery." She smiled grimly. "I'm sure you wouldn't object to a few genetic tests?"
He sighed, secretly elated. "As long as they don't hurt too much, Hals. You know how I am about pain."
"It's preposterous," she murmured, scowling fiercely, but the uncertainty was growing. To the guards, she snapped, "Take him down to the biolab. Tell Bellweather I want the full genotyping run on him and matched with the registered data on Treize Kushrenada. The real Treize."
Since there was no hue and cry, Duo must have successfully escaped the shuttle. Treize had done his job as a distraction, his first and easiest role in this play. He tried to be upbeat about it as he was taken through the dome to huge skyscraper in the middle. Once inside, they entered an elevator and went down -- and down and down.
At first, the doctors and technicians who took his blood and scraped the inside of his mouth joked among each other and jeered at him. "You must have been desperate for money to get turned into that asshole," one woman said, shaking her head at him.
They left him in a small, locked waiting room while the tests were analyzed. He wondered how long it would take before they realized that, genetically, he was the real thing.
And you wanted adventure.
Time passed and no one came. Treize's nerves stretched to threads. Finally, the door opened. Instead of the doctors, however, it was Halia. Her face was a study, pale and oddly crumpled. She came in and sat down in the chair opposite him.
"It's really you," she said.
Treize was triumphant -- and apprehensive that things might still blow up in his face. He shrugged. "As you see."
"I don't understand. I saw the films! That boy blew you up! How did you survive?"
"I want to talk to Zechs."
Her mouth tightened. "This isn't Oz, Treize. I'm in charge here!"
"Maybe so," agreed Treize. "But this is such a tiny moon." He smiled sweetly. "And I still have quite a few friends."
She was silent a long time. He saw the wheels turning behind her intent scowl.
"I have to talk to the Consortium," she said finally.
"And how long will that take?"
"Not long. They're already on their way for a previously scheduled meeting."
"So I just sit here?" Treize gave a disparaging wave at the drab surroundings. "I want to see my mobile suits. I want to see Zechs."
Halia's eyes narrowed; he held his breath. "They know you're their leader?"
Something about the question set off alarms. Treize had been a man who kept secrets. "Some of them," he hedged.
It was the devil who made him open his mouth and blurt, "Chang."
Her eyes widened; red lips parted. Certain he'd made a fatal error, Treize's heart plummeted, but she laughed aloud. "Chang? Chang? Maybe you are Treize! No one else would have the audacity to make a confidant of his would-be murderer!"
She was still chuckling when the guards came to escort him out of the cell.
Zechs' interrogators demagnetized his manacles. His arms fell heavily to his sides. Too weak and confused to stand, he slid down the wall, huddling to avoid their boots. He heard their voices over him in echoes. Something stung his shoulder. His head began to clear. Damn them, he thought with dim despair.
"Peacecraft! You hear me?"
Go to hell. He didn't move, wishing they hadn't given him the drug, wishing all the hurts weren't coming sharply back into focus. It was cold in the cell. His clothes were the first thing they had taken.
"Get him up, damn it. She wants him in shape for the meeting."
There was swearing. Zechs puzzled over their words.
Circulation returned to hands gone numb and swollen. He groaned at the sharp streaks of pain that shot up his arms. They ignored him, dragging him up and throwing him into one of their chairs. He nearly fell out of it, he was in such bad shape.
"I see you did your usual professional job," came a disgusted voice.
Zechs blinked and blinked, trying to clear his vision. Another injection stung, this time at the side of his neck. The worst of the pain began to recede. It was easier to draw a breath. In front of him stood a man in a long white jacket, looking him over grimly.
"W-what... I didn't... Won't cooperate..." he managed, alarmed. Had he broken? Had he given in to their demands?
"Yes, yes. You're a tough one," soothed doctor. "Can you stand?"
The torturers were gone. The cart with their bloody implements had been rolled away. A hospital gurney stood in its place. This must be the next stage, he thought, terror returning. He got up shakily. Even through the painkiller, the agony of his broken foot flared and he fell back, gasping.
The doctor shook his head. "Don't worry. We're here to take care of those injuries. There's an important meeting in a few hours. Ms. Forbes would like you to attend."
The doctor's smile became somewhat fixed. "Your superior is here," he replied. "I'm sure he'll straighten everything out."
"Treize Kushrenada. Like yourself, it would seem, the General has more lives than a cat."
The guards came for Wufei as he sat at his terminal in the data entry hall, inputting numbers from some unknown MDI department. On his screen, a message alert flashed: "Report to the supervisor."
He glanced across the rows of heads bowed over computer screens to Trowa. The other pilot frowned and went back to his work. At the desk at the head of the room, the officer in charge told him, "You're wanted by Admin."
For the first time since MDI had taken over the project, Wufei left the cluster, taking the train across the plain to the massive, crowded Hub. In the cross-plain corridor, there were no light filters and in silence, they rode through Io's intense golden daytime. They didn't go to Admin, however, but toward one of the luxury high-rises nearby that housed MDI's executives and their families.
He considered making a break for it -- the space port wasn't far -- but curiosity had him, and the hope that he might see Zechs or Heero. The guards went with him into one of the glass towers and up a private elevator, but when the door opened onto a small, but luxuriously furnished foyer, they didn't get out. Instead, they gave him a push and he stumbled forward. The door closed and they were gone.
Why would Heero or Zechs be in a place like this? Unease touched him. Wishing he were armed, he walked toward an archway that opened into another, bigger room, one with huge windows that gave a magnificent view of the Hub.
"Good afternoon, Dragon," came a soft voice at the end of the room. Wufei's hair stood on end, hearing it. He turned quickly and got another shock. Tall, elegant, arrogant, the man who looked back at him gave Wufei chills.
Feeling like a serpent before a mongoose, Wufei watched Treize approach. Each leisurely step made Wufei's heart hammer all the more. Even when Treize reached down and set a gentle hand under his chin to tilt his face up, Wufei stood still, paralyzed. The haircut, the clothes, the careless ease in the midst of such danger -- was it possible? Is this the first Treize Kushrenada? Does the General still live?
Where was the clone's usual diffidence, that slightest hint of uncertainty in his gaze or movements?
There was no hesitation, no polite request for permission. Those lean, strong fingers tightened and Treize's mouth came down on his. The kiss was at once possessive and gentle. Wufei could not help leaning into it. When Treize released him, Wufei couldn't breathe.
But Treize didn't move away. He put his lips against Wufei's ear. "I came with Duo," he whispered. "The doctors say you must steal the Gundams as soon as you can and take them to Loki." Then he straightened, eyelids drooping. "Did you miss me?" he asked aloud.
We're being watched! Heart beating with suffocating speed and strength, Wufei summoned a smile.
"I always miss you, Treize."
Duo was here? Steal the Gundams? And Treize was here? Yet even as Wufei's mind grappled with the situation, Treize's hand was stroking his hair, loosening the tie that held it neatly back.
"How much did you miss me?" he asked lightly, dove-tailed eyebrow arching. He was very close.
Wufei smelled cologne and soap and something muskier underneath that made his senses flare. "What are you doing?" he whispered, unnerved by the feelings running through him. He had never felt like this around Meilan!
"What Treize would do," came the murmured reply. "You've wondered in your secret heart, haven't you?"
Yes. Yes, he had, gods help him. Ever since that day on the battleship when he had stood before Treize, disarmed and defeated, when he had seen the light in the other's eyes, he had wondered.
"Besides..." Treize's breath in his ear sent shivers through Wufei. "They can't hear us like this."
Strong fingers tightened in his hair, tipping his head back once again. This time, the kiss was long and deep and left him weak. Treize planted more kisses, tiny and light, along his jaw. "When Duo gets Heero and Odin, he intends to come directly to your cluster." One hand worked at the clasp on Wufei's collar. Wufei knew this, but it was as if was happening to someone else.
"The UESN has been demanding an explanation of the attack on Loki as well as the return of all three of us clones. They're threatening to send two full attack squadrons to Loki if they don't get what they want. The scientists say that time is running out."
Oh, no. What's happening to me? What is he doing?
"When Duo and Heero reach the cluster, move. Do whatever you must, they say."
Wufei's collar was open. Stop it.
Somehow, Wufei had ended up against the window, head fallen back against the glass. Treize's caresses sent pleasurable shocks through him, disordering his thoughts. "We - we can't decommission... Beam cannons outside the facility..."
"Doesn't matter," Treize's lips brushed his again. "They say there's no choice."
Wufei closed his eyes. "Treize, damn it. I can't think when you..."
"Then don't think," came the seductive purr in his ear. He shivered, knowing distantly that he must stop this.
"Pretend you're back on that ship," came the seductive whisper. "Pretend you didn't flee after he gave you your life. Let me show you what would have happened..."
Wufei had lost his shirt. Treize's hands sat on his bare shoulders, warm. What would it be like to be protected instead of always the protector? What would it be like to share all his pain and care with someone so strong that they could bear it?
"Let me show you your dream," continued that soft, irresistible voice, raising gooseflesh.
He had a duty to do. Events hung on the edge of disaster and he needed a clear head, not this -- this confused sense of fear, wonder and wanting. Wufei tried to push Treize away, but somehow, instead, his arms slid up and around the other man's neck. One hand buried itself in the soft, short hair.
"Treize..." he murmured.
The arms around him tightened and then he was abruptly released. Treize spun away. Wufei gasped, head spinning. He sagged against the window, shirt open, hair mussed.
Treize stood with his back to Wufei, fists clenched, shoulders hunched. He took deep breath after deep breath. Wufei didn't know what to say.
It was another few seconds before the red-haired man turned back to face him. Treize's color was high, but he had regained a semblance of his former composure. He leaned close again, but this time, they did not touch. "You should go. I'm due at a meeting."
Wufei's hands shook as he did up his shirt. His entire body tingled and ached. "M-meeting?" he repeated stupidly.
"I'll come to the cluster as soon as I can get away."
"Treize." Without realizing what he did, Wufei reached a hand toward that handsome face. To his dismay, Treize flinched away visibly. The man recovered quickly, smiling as if it were all a joke and stepping back.
"Until later, Chang," he said.
John William Taylor was a captain in MDI's crack security unit. He was single, lived in a spacious, well-furnished condo not far from Admin, liked sports and action movies. He was a bit of a loner, had never been late to work or called in sick, had fifty-thousand credits in his bank account and, in the last month, had spent six hundred credits at some establishment called Jenny Golden's Dating Service. Taylor was also small and wiry and had access to all but the highest security levels in the fortress that was Admin. Best of all, if John William Taylor was in any indication of the opposition Duo faced, Duo reckoned he was home free.
A conk on the head and a few milligrams of bliss had Johnnie-boy settled down for the night. Duo warmed up something spicy from the fridge in the shiny kitchen and ate it in front of the computer. Afterwards, he "borrowed" one of Taylor's austere, grey uniforms, tucking his braid into the collar. Baseball cap pulled down over his uneven bangs, Duo thought admiringly that he looked a lot like the old Shinigami. All he needed was a priest's collar. Maybe later.
It was between shifts when he sauntered through the security entrance of Admin's imposing tower. One man sat behind a piece of blast-proof plazsteel, watching an array of screens. Duo turned his head away, running Taylor's stolen card through the reader. No one shouted. No alarms went off. The heavy lock clicked and he walked through the door and into level one.
There were six levels under the tower. Level six, at the very bottom, held the biolab. According to sec-core, it was where he would find both Heero and Odin. Once he had them, they would have to get over to the T-Gundam unit, about five miles away.
Officially, there were only two ways to get to the research clusters -- via the train corridor or on a shuttle. But according to MDI's security core database, there were also top-secret tunnels leading there. The entrance to those was also on level six. If he was really lucky enough to find both Heero and Odin down there, getting away would be cake.
Taylor's clearance got him to Level Four. The real work started here. Excitement burned like fever in his veins; every sense was open wide. He felt -- alive. The edges of things shimmered. Take it easy. You're still high. Keep alert.
No one gave him a second glance and he walked through the level unmolested, reaching an elevator marked "Down," and "Class A Officers Only." Duo pulled Taylor's card through the reader and held his breath. For a moment, the indicator was blank, then, "Enter Pin" flashed. Rapidly, he did so. The elevator door slid silently open and he was in.
Heero regained consciousness to find himself lying face down on cold concrete. He lifted his head and saw nothing but steel walls and a door. Rolling onto his back, he stared up at the single dim lightbulb recessed in the metal ceiling. Everything hurt. Around his wrist was a cold weight, a metal ring. It was connected to a cable that, in turn, snaked across the floor and vanished into the wall.
The light bothered his eyes. Heero sat up, cable dragging across the floor.
Why the hell hadn't he run? He'd had the perfect chance to escape and he'd blown it! Yet even as he told himself he'd been stupid, Heero remembered Odin's small face, eyes wide and anxious, felt those tiny fingers clutching him as if he were the rock in a maelstrom.
Snarling, he seized the cable and pulled on it with all his strength. It snapped taut. Gundanium, of course. Hand wrapping around it, he leaned back, putting all his weight on it, assessing the strength of the mechanism inside the wall that controlled its extension. There was give.
Heero looped the cable around his wrist several times. Then, seizing it with both hands, he began pulling. Again and again, jerking quickly and with all his considerable strength, he worried at it. The device inside began to yield, but it was slow and grudging. The cable bit deep, but he barely noticed his blood running down its length. Every atom of his being was focused on the unseen retractor, picturing its design, which part would be the first to break.
A line of kings.
Red spots floated in his vision; his breath burned in his lungs. A final, violent, desperate heave and the cable came loose, whiplashing back at him. Barely in time, Heero got an arm up to block it, crying out as the metal sliced more skin. Damn it. Cut to the bone. Knees buckling, he went to the floor. Sweat dripped onto the floor, diluting the blood splashed around him. At least he'd not anything important. Rocking back on his heels, Heero methodically yanked off his shirt, ripping it to strips for a bandage. Ignoring the waves of pain, he bound up the wound. Coiling the cable in his hand, he went to the door. Laying his ear against it, he heard footsteps approaching.
Quickly, he moved back. Bracing himself, trying to find his balance, he heard the lock trip and watched it open. He saw the gray uniform and without even thinking, sent the cable streaking into the doorway. The guard was no longer there, however. Heero blinked rapidly, wondering if it was his eyes that were blurry, or the guard who was fast.
The voice stopped Heero dead in his tracks. He swayed, not believing his eyes. Dressed in MDI gray, hair tucked out of sight, grin sparkling at him from under the brim of a captain's cap, was Duo Maxwell.
The man in the mirror looked like hell. Zechs smiled at his reflection and looked even more alarming. Halia's physicians had closed up the worst of his lacerations, but even with their superior equipment, MDI's medical staff couldn't completely erase the evidence of the interrogation.
"Perhaps some make-up?"
A few hours under the bone-knitter had fused the foot his tormenters had smashed, but it was still fragile and the tissue was tender. Zechs leaned on the cane they'd given him, limping away from the mirror to sit heavily in a nearby armchair. The valet followed, fluttering nervously.
"I have just the thing to hide the bruises!"
Zechs' current surroundings were much superior to his cell, but he was under no illusions that this luxurious apartment was any less a prison.
"I said no." Zechs didn't raise his voice, but the valet, clearly unhappy, bowed and scuttled away.
Let Halia explain the injuries away, if she could. He heard the low murmur of voices as the valet. spoke to the guards in the next room.
Treize, you idiot. What are you up to?
The very thought of one of the clones acting in such an incomprehensible manner sent chills up Zechs' spine and brought unsettling thoughts of Arcane, and of Regina before her treatment.
The valet returned. He had Zechs' tuxedo jacket. "Sir," the man attempted again, "if you go to the reception like that, everyone will surely stare!"
"Then I won't go to the reception." Zechs heaved himself from the chair. "I should be with my people."
Both he and the valet knew that was impossible, but at least the man shut up.
Halia appeared with a unit of guards to escort him to the meeting. Seeing the extent of his injuries, she glowered at the valet, who bowed low and backed hastily away.
"Afraid to let your guests know the quality of your hospitality?" Zechs murmured.
She smiled tightly, but didn't respond. He limped after her out of the room and into an elevator. There was silence as first as it raced upwards, the Hub spread out around them.
"How did he escape that battle?"
"I'm asking you."
"What are you going to do, Halia? Torture me some more?"
He laughed softly at her expression as the elevator came a halt and the doors slid open. He was light-headed from the medication.
The meeting was in the penthouse. Surrounded by her guards, Zechs followed Halia slowly through one spacious, window-lined room after another. He heard the growing buzz of conversation and the clink of crystal. Ahead was a set of wide, ornately carved double doors -- real wood. Two servants sprang forward quickly to open them..
A dozen men and women in expensive suits stood in a group near the windows. Zechs' eyes were drawn immediately to the tall, striking figure in their midst. For just an instant, his blood froze in his veins.
"There is no one quite like him, is there?" Halia said, so softly Zechs barely made out her words. Pain twisted in his heart, raising a lump in his throat.
Some fortunate instinct kept Zechs moving toward the group, but he had to repeat over and over that this wasn't the first Treize, not his Treize. This was not the man he'd loved with such desperation and, later, thought he hated with as great a passion. "Hello, Treize," he managed. "This is a surprise."
Treize's dove-tailed eyebrows snapped together. He turned to Halia, who met his angry glare without a flinch.
"If you had trusted me," she retorted, "none of this would have happened."
Zechs stared numbly at the lean, beautifully-manicured hand that clasped his. Gently, Treize led him to a nearby sofa and saw him seated. "Are you all right?" he asked. Zechs nodded. What was the clone doing?
Treize straightened. God, even that simple movement held echoes of the man Zechs had once loved to the exclusion of all reason. It was deliberate. It had to be!
"And what will reconcile me to this outrage, Hals?" Treize asked coldly.
"A chance to take control of the UESN," she replied, "and to do it right."
Looking closer, his initial shock fading, Zechs began to see the tiny differences. This Treize's mouth was not so hard as the first's had been, the blue eyes still held a bit of warmth and wonder.
"I'm waiting," Treize said. "Amuse me."
She believed he really was the old Treize. Zechs could see in their faces that they all believed. Like his namesake, the clone was the gravitational center of the room. Whether people realized it or not, they came to him. They couldn't help it. Even in their individual conversational groups, they edged nearer, glances darting toward his figure and away.
"Every man and woman present here tonight runs a piece of the sphere's economic engine. In our own way we are queens and kings of great empires. And all of us take rejuv."
This was not news. Rejuv therapy was hideously expensive. No one else but the very wealthy could afford the life-extending drugs.
"However, rejuv has an unfortunate side effect."
"Sterility," said Zechs, looking from face to face. There was Harry Connors, head of JenDrom Utilities, and behind him, Margarite Amir, CEO of AT&T.
"The drug also destroys certain proteins, making it impossible to be successfully cloned," she went on. "MDI, however, has perfected a method of combining synthetic genes with human ones. The synthetic genes are able to function without the missing protein in the human genetic material. With the synthetic providing a genetic matrix, it becomes possible again to have a son or daughter." Her eyes shone. "And not just any son or daughter, either. Our heirs will be faster, stronger and smarter -- superior to normal humans in every way. That they will eventually rule humanity in our names is inevitable!"
No wonder Halia had been so determined to recover Odin!
"And the T-Gundams?" Treize interrupted. "What do they have to do with this?"
There was silence. The assembled guests exchanged quick looks.
"We don't expect the UESN to approve of the idea," she replied demurely. "Naturally, we must ensure the proper climate to conduct our affairs." Her guests snickered and someone said something rude about the Security Council.
"And Yuy?" Zechs asked tightly.
"Obviously, the source of the synthetic genes must be well guarded and cared for. Heero Yuy will..." She was interrupted by the approach of a security guard. He drew her aside, talking to her a low voice. Her face darkened, mouth thinning into a hard, white line. Nodding shortly, she fixed Treize and Zechs with a furious gaze. Out in the Hub, sirens wailed.
"This is your doing," she accused Treize. "GUARDS!"
The doors burst open and a sea of grey flooded in. Zechs started to rise, but Treize moved faster. Zechs heard a crack and the tinkle of glass across a nearby, marble-topped table, and the red-haired man was standing behind Halia, the jagged edges of his smashed wine-glass against her throat.
"HOLD!" shouted one of the guards, and the soldiers froze, guns aimed at them.
"That's good." Treize smiled pleasantly. "I happen to know this can hurt -- rather a lot. Now, Hals, dear. You, Zechs and I are going for a little walk."
"Where's the kid?" Duo asked, with a quick look up and down the hallway. So far, no one had come to check on the two unconscious guards sprawled a short distance away. He didn't count on their luck holding -- not down here.
Heero shook his head. "We don't have time. The elevators are nearby. If we use the shaft, we might be able to make it out of the building and..."
"Where's Odin?" Duo didn't budge. "We ain't leavin' him here. I figure there are two possibilities. North corner or center portion. Which is it?"
"You have to be kidding, Maxwell!"
Duo's heart began to pound. Every step of the way down here, he'd known they would come to this moment. "I ain't abandoning him," he said, not moving. "Go on, if you want. I'll get him and follow you."
It wasn't fair and Duo knew it, but Heero was too beaten and tired to put up much of a fight. "Duo," he rasped, lifting a hand to shove back his dark hair. Duo saw his wrist, bloody and swollen, trailing the gundanium cable. "This isn't smart." But there was more of resignation in his face than of anger. "North corner."
"I love you," said Duo.
To his relief, that tiny smile lifted the corners of Heero's bruised mouth. He helped himself to one of the downed guards' weapons and then, without looking to see if Duo followed, started down the corridor.
There were men posted at the end, their backs turned, talking. Heero slumped against the wall. "Duo," he tried again.
"No way," Duo whispered fiercely. "No fucking way, Yuy!"
"The human genes are Halia Forbes'."
At first, Duo didn't comprehend. He stared at Heero.
"If we leave him, he'll have everything money can buy. He'll have wealth and power. He will be able to command respect." Heero's voice got softer and less certain. "What can we give him, Duo?"
"Waddya mean, what can we give him?" Great. Now Heero decided to get all introspective? "We ain't ripping Odin from the arms of his loving mama, we're rescuin' him from a freakin' laboratory! You honestly think that psycho bitch can teach him anything about courage or loyalty or -- or kindness? Do you really think she cares about him as much as we do?"
Heero bowed his head a moment, fingers tightening on his gun. Then, before Duo knew what he was doing, he stepped around the corner and fired twice. Duo heard both guards hit the floor.
It was all Wufei could do to keep his patience on the ride back to the cluster. There were three men sent with him. Unlike the trip over, these were low-level security guards. Once away from the Hub, he took out his phone and called Trowa. "Get ready," he said tersely. "It's time to take back the Gundams -- by any means possible."
"What the are you saying?" one of the guards demanded, leaning toward him. "Who are you talking to?"
Wufei slammed the phone into his face, knocking him back into the arms of his neighbor. Both fell from the bench to the floor.
That brought the other down on him, shouting in alarm, fumbling at his weapon. Wufei was briefly glad for his weeks working out with Treize.
Desperately, he dragged his thoughts away from that dangerous, beautiful man. He kicked the gun out of the guard's hands, sending it flying across the car. By the time the tram reached the Commons and Hilde burst through the door, gun drawn, all three guards were unconscious and not likely to be awake soon. The young woman laughed aloud. "I shouldn't have wasted my time," she said.
Wufei shrugged, then, "Look out!"
But Hilde had already thrown herself to the ground as blaster fire streaked by overhead. Wufei, who had helped himself to a gun from one of his escorts, spun around and shot the sniper, an MDI guard hiding behind a trash container.
"Any means necessary?" she greeted him. "Sounds like time to kick some ass to me."
Once in the elevator, Milliardo tersely insisted they tie Hals' hands behind her.
"You'll never get away with this!" Her voice was calm, but icy. In the ceiling, the red alarm light continued to flash.
"She used to keep poison darts in a little sheathe on her upper thigh," Treize told Milliardo and she cursed him in terms that widened his eyes.
They reached the ground floor; the elevator doors slid open. Outside, twenty or thirty security troops were treated to the sight of their boss against the elevator wall, her dress hiked up to her waist while Milliardo fumbled at the little belt holding the sheathe against her creamy flesh.
"Don't let them pass!" she cried.
Treize smiled and gave the woman a poke with the broken bottle. She sputtered, but said nothing more. Milliardo shoved the darts into his pocket and, gripping the cane tightly, rose to face the guards. As Treize had expected, none of them dared fire.
"Out of the way," said Milliardo.
There was a long, nerve-racking moment when nobody moved.
"Do it," grated Halia.
The guards shuffled aside, opening a path. Every hair on Treize's body stood on end as he walked between them with their boss. Milliardo, leading the way, stopped long enough to remove two guns from the nearby men. Then, to Treize's surprise, he handed one over. "Go ahead, sir," he said crisply.
Milliardo hadn't meant to say it like that. Treize saw the realization flash in those blue eyes, felt the shock that hung between them. He took the gun and threw away the bottle. The silver-haired man nodded and turned, limping rapidly through the silent guards toward a security car parked near the curb.
"I'll drive," Milliardo said. He didn't look at Treize again.
Treize's pulse was racing. "Where are we going? Train or..."
"Space port," replied Milliardo. "With luck, Wufei has already spread the word. Do you have any memories of piloting mobile suits?"
Rounding a corner, Duo and Heero ran into a couple more guards on patrol. One got off a shot before they did and by the time the two were down, the alarms had started.
Abandoning subtlety, Duo started running. There were three more guards when they reached the laboratory door. The men didn't have a chance. Duo stepped over their bodies, cracking open the door. Heero's heart leapt into his mouth, but there was no return gunfire, no shouting from within.
"No one's here," Duo said. "I'll grab Odin. Be right back."
It was officially night-shift. The science team would be gone. Heero nodded and Duo hurried inside. Keeping one eye on the corridor, Heero took up watch inside the doorway.
The sirens were at full howl now. Red emergency lights flashed rhythmically. Duo reached Odin who shrieked and held out his arms. "DO-DOH! DO-DOH!"
Heero heard footsteps approaching, several sets of them and coming fast. Wishing he could get rid of the damn chain, he lifted his gun, steadying it with both hands. His muscles trembled with weakness. He needed food and water, real sleep...
Once, twice, three times: he squeezed off the blasts, catching the approaching guards by surprise as they ran around the corner and straight into his line of fire. Then Duo was behind him, the excited baby in his arms. "We go for the elevators."
It was not as if they had any fucking choice, deep underground as they were. It was the stairs or the elevators, suicide either way. They ran.
Two elevators were before them. The voices at their backs got louder. Odin clung to Duo's neck in a death grip.
"We'll never make it with the baby," Heero said, thinking of the long climb up the shaft.
"No problem. They've got a top secret network of tunnels running under this entire complex. I found it while I was goin' through their security files lookin' for you."
Duo, juggling Odin on one arm, began punching numbers into a keypad on the wall between the elevators. The doors on the left whisked open. But it wasn't an elevator; it was a set of stairs going down.
"Tada!" Duo swept an exaggerated bow. Odin shrieked in delight to be dipped and swung.
Heero shook his head. "After you," he said and stood, watchful, gun at ready, until Duo and Odin were both safely down the steps.
Wufei and the others had the cluster under partial control. There was chatter coming in over the com from Admin, outrage and threats and ultimatums. MDI may have had the numbers, but they were Gundam pilots and guerrilla fighters. For the moment, all the bastards could do was bluster.
The best news yet -- they'd heard from Zechs. He was coming in from the Hub on a security shuttle with Treize Kushrenada. And they had Halia Forbes as a hostage! Wufei's laughter drew startled glances from everyone around him. It was the same audacity that had won his grudging admiration of Treize and Zechs during the war.
"I can't wait to meet this clone," murmured Trowa, who had only seen Treize asleep in White Rose's bio-container.
For some reason, Wufei's face grew hot. He caught Trowa's too-keen glance and looked away. "Everything's secure," he said shortly. "The MDI guards are locked up. I say we go for the Gundam hangar."
They were fifty-six strong: test pilots and laboratory staff, all armed and ready to finish retaking the mobile suits. They waited now while their de facto leaders discussed their next move.
"Even with Halia as hostage, it won't be long before the skies over us will be filled with MDI security ships," Sally said. "We have to get the Gundams away now or there will be a bloodbath!"
"What about Duo and Heero?" Quatre's eyes met Wufei's. "Shouldn't we wait for them?"
"And the perimeter cannons," Sally reminded them grimly. "What about them?"
There was a brief, gloomy silence. Repeated attempts to hack into sec-core had been unsuccessful. As Wufei had predicted, MDI had wrapped it up tight. He looked at Trowa and Quatre. "The three of us will have to destroy the guns ourselves," he said finally. "We can use the beam sabres. We can't afford to wait any longer!"
"That's suicide!" cried Hilde, appalled.
"No." Quatre grinned crookedly. "Sounds just like old times."
The stairs descended deep into the rock of Io, coming to a junction of nine tunnels that branched off into darkness. A crowd of transport pods waited for them.
"DA!" Odin's voice echoed down the dark ways. He reached for Heero, who shook his head, moving instead toward a pod with the number nine stenciled on the side. "No controls," he reported, heart sinking. "Just on and off."
"Don't matter." Duo reached him and threw a leg over the pod's low side.. "According to their first-level security files, the runabout system is completely independent from any other computer grid on Io. These tunnels were built for escape or invasion, nothing else. Is Nine the cluster?"
It was almost like being back in the war, Zero and Shinigami, flying through the dark as the pod hurtled toward the cluster. Almost. Heero had that same heady feeling of excitement and apprehension, but this time, there was Odin, shrieking in exhilaration, bouncing up and down in Duo's lap as the wind streamed past them and lights flashed by so fast they seemed like streaks of lightning.
"You promised you'd stay on L2!" Heero shouted. "You lied!"
"Turn about is fair play!" Duo taunted.
A trip that took ten minutes by train took five by pod. Before they knew it, the little cart was slowing and, up ahead, lights came on to illuminate a rounded, concrete cavern. If there had been any doubt about the purpose of the tunnels, they found weapons lockers and body armor in plazsteel cases.
"Bonus!" crowed Duo, scrambling out after Heero and racing to the lockers. Heero already had one open. He took out an SK90 and some body armor.
"Stay here," Heero ordered. "I'll see if it's all clear."
Miraculously, Duo gave him no argument, but started rooting through the armory himself. Heero went up the steps and tested the trap door. It opened into the floor of a mechanical closet. He stepped out warily.
The small room was empty. Heero slipped through the tall turbines to the door and opened it a crack. Sprawled across the corridor floor not far away was the gray-uniformed body of a guard. Heero returned to the trap door. Duo was waiting at the bottom of the steps.
"Looks like the party started."
Duo had appropriated body armor for himself, choosing an extra-large vest and tucking Odin into it, much to Odin's amusement. "Do-Doh!" he cried and wriggled madly.
"Ouch! Shhhh. Kid, we gotta be quiet!"
In spite of the danger, Heero felt laughter tickling inside.
They had come out near the hydroponic domes. The alarms had been shot out, and the security cameras. Heero took point, but they saw no one until they reached the Commons.
There were more bodies lying at the Commons' door. Inside, near one of the food stands, they found one of the Gundam techs standing guard. He greeted them with a whoop, a wide grin spreading over his face. "Yuy! Shit!" He looked past Heero to Duo and Odin and his eyes got even rounder.
"What's going on?" asked Heero shortly.
"DA!" Odin added, wanting down to explore the interesting new surroundings.
"Uh -- we've retaken most of the cluster," said the tech, blinking at the annoyed baby. "The rest of 'em are at the Gundam hangar -- hey! They're still fightin' there! Watch it! HEY! You can't take a kid there!"
Zechs banked the shuttle, moving around the domes toward the cluster's docking facility. On the com screen, Quatre, face smudged and a cut across his forehead, looked back at him. Zechs could see the triumph in that tired face. "What is the situation?" he asked.
"The Gundams are ours. We're just cleaning up. Be careful coming in. We think an MDI unit escaped into the dock."
Zechs checked the sensors again. Still no sign of MDI fighters. Good. "Get everyone into their Gundams and be ready to move as soon as I get there. Have you heard from Heero and Duo?"
"Yes. They showed up a little while ago. They're suiting up." Quatre's face gave away his lingering surprise. "Your Gundam is prepped and ready. What about Treize?"
"He'll ride with me." Wufei's face appeared in the corner of the screen. "Nataku is closest to the dock entrance. I have an extra suit."
"You will never get away with this," Halia said for the hundredth time. "The guns will bring them down. You're sending your people into death!"
The small dock appeared deserted when Zechs brought the shuttle in. Gun in hand, he made his way through the cockpit to the door and out. Treize followed, a hand on Halia's arm. She was white-faced with rage and fear.
Zechs' broken foot ached abominably. Whatever repairs had been made, he had thoroughly undone. Fever sang in his blood. Damnation! He needed all his wits.
The silence in this usually busy, noisy place was uncanny. All but the emergency power was gone, leaving only the occasional spotlight. He thought about Quatre's warning and kept close to the hulks of the ships, making his way toward the corridor that led to the hangar.
"Even if you get away, we'll come after you," Halia ranted. "The entire consortium has the security forces to put together a respectable army! We'll come to Loki! Don't think you've heard the last of this."
There were no more ships ahead: no cover between them and the doors to the corridor fifty feet away.
"Shut up," Zechs said flatly. "You're coming with..."
His words were cut off by the sudden, unmistakable whine of energy fire. Some sixth sense made him lurch to the side, the beam impacting on the deck with a crack and sizzle. He rolled, coming up under a nearby transport. Pain, white-hot and sharp, stabbed through his foot.
Treize had pulled Halia back beneath the transport's stabilizer wing. He looked terrified, but grimly determined.
"Don't let them through!" shrieked Halia. "KILL THEM!"
"Snipers," Zechs gasped. This was not good. Even with Halia between them, they could be picked off as they made their way across that open space.
"Fire again and your chairwoman is dead!" Treize's voice rang out into the echoing space. Zechs, breathing hard, pain making him dizzy, peered into the distant roof. Beams and catwalks crisscrossed overhead. The shadow was deepest there; the shooter or shooters could be anywhere.
"Wherever they are," said Treize in a low voice, "they can't get me here. I'm betting they won't shoot as long as I have her out of reach. Go."
"G-go?" Zechs righted himself, but he had to lean heavily on the cane. There were little dots dancing in his vision. "Once you're on the other side," Treize said, "we'll follow."
There seemed something wrong with that plan. He wished his head were clearer.
"Zechs is leaving," Treize shouted, his back to the transport, Halia pulled in front of him. "Shoot and I start putting holes in Halia. Got that?"
"Don't listen to him! Don't let..." Halia's words ended in shriek.
Pain roared in Zechs' ears as he stepped out into the open. The back of his neck prickled at the thought of the marksman somewhere overhead, watching him make his halting way across the dock. Ahead was the door to the hangar and safety. It swam in his pain-blurred vision.
After an eternity, he reached it. Breathless, he fell through and, once out of reach of the unseen marksmen, sagged against the wall.
Halia and Treize emerged from the transport's cover. Treize held his gun firmly against her spine. Halia was limping, leaving a trail of blood across the dirty bay floor.
Where was the shooter? Zechs searched the deep shadows above and around the two, but nothing moved. Suddenly, Halia shrieked, her wounded leg buckling. Zechs saw a flash in the darkness high overhead and heard a crack.
Like watching a vid in slow motion, Zechs saw Treize topple forward, saw him land heavily on Halia as she struggled to rise. Shrieking profanity, Halia shoved Treize off. Her elegant cocktail dress was covered with blood. Treize didn't move, lying face down where she'd pushed him, blood spreading in a widening pool across the floor.
Reflex sent Zechs limping forward, then the glass door in front of him shattered. Halia was screaming again, pointing at the corridor. Wrenching his stunned gaze from Treize's body, Zechs turned and fled to the Gundam dome.
The hangar echoed with the thunder of the Vernier-Typhus engines. Duo stood by the shuttle, watching the last of the project's clerical and administrative staff hurry up the ramp and in. He'd agreed to pilot the shuttle, mostly because Heero said so. Since Heero was in a towering rage over the somatine business, it had seemed smart to obey. Duo's hand crept to his pocket where he had four more doses. He'd probably have to take one during the upcoming flight. Already, he could feel the effects of the last dose wearing off.
Too bad, though. He would really have liked to pilot one of those Gundams. His fingers itched for the controls, familiar to him after playing the sims so often. He slanted an apprehensive look at the stiff, angry figure nearby. Heero and Wufei had their heads bent together, talking in low voices, probably working out the escape formations.
Through the crowd, Duo caught a glimpse of Trowa. With him was Zechs, but Zechs sure looked like hell. "What happened?" he demanded when they reached him.
Zechs just shook his head. "Trowa says you retrieved Odin."
"Yeah, he's in the shuttle, sound asleep. One of the secretaries, Joy, is watchin' him. Where's Treize?"
Trowa's eyes dropped. Zechs straightened. He was obviously in pain, white-lipped, beads of sweat on his forehead. His foot was badly swollen. "He didn't make it."
"W-what?" Duo's heart dropped like a stone. From the corner of his eye, he saw Wufei turn quickly around.
There was real regret in Zechs' pale face. "Sniper."
And I brought him here, thought Duo, sickened. I brought him here to die. Oh, God.
"Dead?" Wufei's voice was strange, thin and disbelieving.
"You're in no shape to pilot a Gundam." Heero interrupted, his hard blue gaze fixed on Zechs' swollen foot.
Zechs scowled. "All I need are stimulants and pain-killers..."
"Bullshit. Take the shuttle; its controls are hands-only." Heero gestured to Duo. "He's been doing the sims for the past year. He can take your Gundam."
Zechs looked Duo up and down. "How?"
Duo started to answer, but Heero beat him to it. "Somatine." He bit the word off, a world of loathing in it.
Zechs blinked. "Somatine? What the hell? How can he pilot on that stuff?"
"Don't forget. Technically, I'm an addict." Duo didn't look at Heero. "Low doses of the drug don't have the same effect on me as they would someone like you. I just need enough to keep from bein' sick. I can handle it, no problem."
Trowa looked doubtful. "There are beam cannons surrounding the complex -- out in the hills that ring the lunar plain. We weren't able to hack sec-core and decommission them. You need all your reflexes..."
"I deactivated 'em already," Duo said. They all stared at him. "Well shit! I had to get into sec-core to find Heero. Didja really think I wouldn't check everything out? Like I'm gonna leaves big cannons online to fire at our asses! Get real!"
"Fuck," said Trowa finally and burst out laughing.
"MDI fighters approaching!" someone shouted.
"My Gundam is over there," Zechs said, starting toward the shuttle ramp. "The blue one. Don't you dare wreck it, Maxwell!"
Duo gave him the finger, then turned, only to find Heero directly in front of him. "Uh, Heero..."
Instead of more scolding, however, Heero pulled him close and held him. "See you on Loki," he whispered, then turned and hurried away, of sight. Taking a deep breath, Duo pulled on his helmet and ran for the mobile suit.
Like shooting stars returning to the heavens, the Gundams roared out of the hangar. Wufei kept Nataku in line with others, streaking straight up until they hovered against Jupiter's brilliant, golden surface. "Enemy straight ahead," came Quatre's calm voice. "Beam sabers at ready."
Across the lunar plain came a line of fighters. Specs claimed they only carried mid-level guns, but MDI had yet to be honest about anything. Wufei readied his saber, felt the accelerated vibration as the hybrid alien engine kicked up power.
He kissed me and now he's dead.
The fighters were closer now. Nataku's long range cameras began to pick up details. Modified, all right: disrupters and small beam cannons. This would be no easy battle.
Why do I feel like this?
Wufei righted the T-Gundam to face the onslaught, activating Nataku's force-field in readiness for attack. Quatre's voice echoed in his ears, issuing instructions to the Gundams coming after them. MDI's fighters filled his forward screen.
He kissed me.
There was a lump in Wufei's throat, a tightness he had not felt since that terrible day when Meilan had died. Deadly blossoms of fire appeared along the enemy line. He felt the impact of the first beam glance off the shielding. He closed his eyes briefly, felt the suit rock under another impact.
"WUFEI!" yelled Duo. "What the fuck are you doing?"
So. I am not yet forgiven.
His future stretched bleakly before him, a gray desert of battles and emptiness. He had been a fool to think he deserved anything else. "Meilan," he whispered. Then, beam saber carving a deadly path before him, Wufei charged the enemy line.
"There it is!" whooped Duo. "Loki! We're home!"
"How are you feeling?"
"Yuy, damn it! If you ask me that again, I'm gonna kick your butt when we get in!" But Duo was in too good a mood to be bothered by Heero's fussing. Even the small twinges in his joints and the queasiness in his gut couldn't bring him down. He'd flown and fought in a Gundam again! It was as fun as he remembered. They'd kicked ass over Io and left Forbes shaking her fist uselessly after them! Best of all, they hadn't lost a single unit. Yep. It was worth every bit of the shit he was going to go through later.
And it was gonna be shit. His heart was beating too fast. Before he knew what he was doing, he had the injector in his hand. Three more doses.
"Duo?" Heero again.
The injector clattered to the floor of the cockpit. Duo leaned back in his seat. "Yeah?"
"Sorry about Treize."
Duo clenched his fists and was dismayed at the bright sparks of pain that brought. Withdrawal was coming on faster than he'd thought. He looked again at the injector.
Your entire nervous system could collapse.
"Yeah," Duo said. "He more than made up for that Oz bastard in my book."
Loki admin sent the shuttle to the private dock. Duo and the others brought the Gundams around the colony to its main docking facility. The cavernous place had been cleared ahead of time, but the space was still barely sufficient to hold all ten giants.
Their orders were to get to the colony's private section ASAP. Duo privately thought their time would be better used getting real weapons on the T-Gundams. MDI would be coming soon and the UESN was gonna figure things out pretty damned fast. The docs' weird machine, whatever it was, might give them some protection, but Duo was willing to bet, in the end, the Gundams would still be needed to defend Loki.
He popped the hatch, but lingered a moment in the cockpit, savoring the last few seconds of being a Gundam pilot again. Then he pushed it open and scrambled out.
Heero was waiting at the bottom, helmet under his arm, dark brows drawn together in a worried frown. He opened his mouth, but Duo kissed him before he could start.
"Was I cool, or what?" Duo chortled afterwards, slinging an arm around Heero's waist.
"Asshole." The worried look didn't go away.
"Maybe." Duo winked elaborately. "But I'm your asshole!"
"Hey, Duo!" He turned to see Hilde skipping toward him, Sally following more sedately. He was engulfed in one of Hilde's hugs. "Incredible job! You were absolutely amazing! Are you sure all you did were sims?"
It was a high-spirited group that piled into the waiting van. The only shadow across their victory was Treize's death. Wufei seemed especially somber, staring through the windows at the empty streets of Main Section, his mind clearly far away. There had been something between them, something stronger than mere friendship. You didn't look like your whole world had collapsed otherwise.
The mansion wasn't as chaotic as it had been on Duo's last visit. Pargan had clearly had some influence. The cables and wires were neatly bundled and confined to the corners of rooms and corridors. There were guards everywhere inside the house: Maganac! Rashid himself met them at the door.
"All nonessential personnel have been removed from the colony," Rashid reported, hurrying along with them as the pilots hurried toward the dining hall. "My men are supporting every critical security point. "
The dining hall had been set up as a conference room. Computers lined the walls and there was a big screen in front of the huge fireplace. Zechs was already there, Wilder at his shoulder. The alien lifted his gaze and found Duo. There was a whisper of greeting in Duo's head, then Wilder was gone.
Wilder was going to be pretty pissed, too. Then Duo turned to see Heero glaring across the table at the alien and forgot his growing discomfort. Sometimes Yuy was so damned cute. He chuckled. "Who's the baka?"
"Shut up." Heero sat down and continued to glower at Wilder.
"Congratulations," Zechs said as soon as everyone had found a seat. "It looks like we pulled it off."
Cheers rose from the assembly. More and more people were arriving and the hall quickly filled.
"But we're not out of the woods yet."
The hubbub died away. Duo could see tension in Zechs' hands, clasped tightly on the tabletop.
"We've been monitoring government frequencies. They've received anonymous reports and surveillance images of the T-Gundams arriving on Loki. They've begun assembling a fleet of armed ships as I speak. MDI, in the meantime, are pretending to know nothing about it and are offering their own security forces as a sign of good faith."
There was much derision at that.
"Guess we know where the anonymous tip came from." Duo's lip curled, but his heart sank. "What about your machine?" he asked J. "You said it was going to help protect us against that."
Surprised murmuring rose from the assembly. J scowled. Oops. Guess it had been a secret.
"Hopefully, that's what it will do," he agreed grimly, "but you have to understand that this entire device is strictly experimental; we haven't even had a chance to test it. If it fails ..."
"If it fails, then we'll have no choice but to defend ourselves," finished Zechs.
"What is this machine?" someone called.
J's eyes narrowed. "That's classified," he said shortly. "You'll know when we're ready to activate it. In the meantime, it will take the government several days to organize a fleet they feel is adequate to challenge us. That's enough time to arm the Gundams."
"Use the Gundams against our own people?" whispered Hilde into the shocked silence.
Duo listened as the muttering of dismay grew around him. All of them had joined to defend Earth against the Dzril. No one, himself included, wanted to start another damned war!
"If our device fails," warned J, "and you do not defend the T-Gundams, then the UESN will destroy them and imprison all of us."
"We don't need to arm." Heero pushed back his chair and stood up. The room became abruptly silent. "The device won't fail," he said flatly. "None of your truly important projects have ever failed before, have they?"
The expression on J's face was unreadable.
"I believe in you," Heero said simply. "Just tell us what we can do to help make it work."
The silence stretched. Then J coughed. "Very well," he said gruffly. "But at least arm one or two for use patrolling the space around Loki. We don't want to give everything away to MDI or UESN's spy drones."
A gentle shaking woke Heero. He sat up at once, blinking. G stood over his chair, tired but smiling.
"Duo's awake. The young idiot is uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as he deserves. Impress upon him that it was touch-and-go there for awhile and not to pull that damn fool stunt again."
Heero didn't even wait for the old man to finish. He ran, scattering people before him in the crowded hallways. Sally jumped out of his way as he burst into the unit and she laughed. "Take it easy," she advised, shrugging out of her lab coat. "He's officially out of danger and in the nuisance phase."
Nodding, Heero knocked on Duo's door. A weak voice ordered him in.
Looking tired and unexpectedly fragile, Duo reclined against a mountain of pillows. He was as white as the bleached linens and his hands rested listlessly on the sheets.
"I'll kill you if you do that again," Heero said, nearly overcome with relief.
Duo smiled wanly. "Kill me before I do it again, okay? Shit."
Heero sank onto the edge of the bed. Duo rolled over, curling around him. "Sorry for makin' you worry," he said. Burrowing his head against Heero's hip, he said, "You still mad?"
Twenty-four hours ago, Duo had been delirious, convulsing; his respiratory system had shut down -- twice. Heero had been there for it all, fingernails bitten right down to the quick. "Not any more."
"I'm okay, though, right? The docs said so."
"Yeah." Heero reached down and caressed the soft hair. It needed brushing and rebraiding.
"Are we under attack yet?"
"Not yet. Soon, though. Rashid's people say the UESN has assembled a fleet of over a hundred armed ships and is busy refitting old Tauruses."
"What about the docs?"
"They've finished the simulations. It looks good. What about you, Duo? Any dizziness? Nausea?" That was Heero's greatest fear, that the drugs might have further damaged Duo's brain and he would no longer be able to tolerate even colony gravity.
"Nah. Just feel like I've been beat up."
"I should go. Let you rest some more."
"No!" Duo reached out and caught his hand. "Stay with me. Bet you haven't been gettin' much sleep, have you?"
Heero didn't answer, but his fingers tightened around Duo's.
"So stay here. Take off your shoes and get in."
"Duo, I can't..."
"If you don't, I'll get up," Duo threatened, pushing back the covers. "Maybe I'll check on the kid. How is he, anyway?"
"Ruling the roost," retorted Heero, pushing Duo back into the pillows. "Damned, spoiled brat. Both of you."
Duo abruptly stopped fighting and the sudden capitulation took Heero by surprise. He lost his balance, collapsing onto Duo. Duo's arms came around him at once. He felt Duo's lips against his ear, felt that slender body react instantly to his weight and warmth. From the corner of his eye, he saw Duo suddenly reach out for something near the bed.
"I love you," he mumbled into Duo's shoulder. "What are you doing?"
"Puttin' on the 'do not disturb' light," replied his lover demurely. The hand returned to slide up under Heero's shirt. "We wouldn't want to shock anyone, now would we?"
Noin arrived, breathless, ahead of the UESN fleet by twenty minutes. "Tendered my resignation," she grinned when Zechs met her, astonished, dismayed -- and delighted. "You didn't think I was going to let you fight without me beside you? We have a tradition, you and I."
"We do, indeed," he laughed, drawing her into a tight embrace. "Welcome to sedition, Lieutenant."
He thought about the Gundams in the dock. If the docs failed, the mobile suits would be destroyed and he would be the one to order their destruction. By now, MDI would have had the time to go through every computer in the T-Gundam cluster; they would know that every atom of data had been wiped clean. Halia had no intention of giving up her dreams. She and her damned Consortium were more than willing to change their plans, to use the UESN to get their hands on at least one suit. The mark of good management was flexibility. Damn straight.
"You may have arrived only in time to be arrested," he sighed, returning to his chair. He propped his bandaged foot on the desk. "
"I knew something was up when Pargan sent for Regina and Damon. What about the colonists here? Are they all with you, too?"
"Those not on the project were relocated a few weeks ago. We put it around that there was a fatal error in the ventilation program and they would have to evacuate until it was corrected. There's just us here now, about two hundred and fifty people."
On the desk before him, Zechs' mail icon blinked rapidly, red -- urgent. From Toronto. His eyes met Noin's. She smiled briefly, then stepped around him, taking up a position at his left shoulder next to Wilder.
It was Lady Portland of UESN's Security Council.
"Your Majesty, please! Think about what you are doing! If you persist in this folly, then there can be no mercy for you! Surely you must understand that!"
"We will not harm anyone," Zechs replied. "But we will not surrender our only hope of defense."
"It's true," she said, mouth tightening. "You are mad. We should have taken a lesson from the war, seen you as you truly were! For the sake of your sainted sister, we gave you the benefit of the doubt. We were fools to do so! It is a mistake we will not repeat!"
Wilder's hand on Zechs' shouldered tightened.
"May the lives you take haunt you until the end of your days, Milliardo Peacecraft," she said gravely, and broke the connection.
"Last bridge burned," murmured Noin.
The alarm was shrilling as they left his office, running through the crowded halls for the ballroom. Maganac posted there moved quickly aside to let them pass. Inside, the presence of enormous amounts of energy made Zechs' skin crawl. He saw Heero hunched over a terminal at the end of a long row of computers. Duo sat beside him, pointing at something on screen. Heero looked up at Zechs, dark blue eyes unfathomable, before looking back down at his screen again.
Zechs took up position behind Dr. J. On the main monitor was a grid, each intersection marked by a bright spot of light. There were ten spots of light in all.
"The UESN fleet is within range," came Quatre's voice over the loudspeaker. "They're hailing."
"Well?" Zechs prodded.
J looked over his shoulder and grimaced. "Have we mentioned how many things could go wrong?"
"Yes. Do it anyway."
Duo laughed. "You're as wild as we are, ain't ya, Zechs?"
"All right," called J. "Heero! Bring 'em online!"
"What is this?" whispered Noin as the power built around them. "What are you doing? Is it dangerous? What are those things?" She pointed to the grid where, one after the other, the points of light were turning green.
"Those lights are the Gundam's faster-than-light engines," explained J. "They've been arranged in a precise formation around the colony and linked for maximum power."
The color drained from Noin's face. "You're moving the colony!
Zechs grinned. "Hold onto your hat, Noin," he warned. "We're going for one hell of a ride!"
"You're really leavin'?" Duo watched Wufei throw his bag into the back of the car. "You know what Zechs said. No way he's still alive."
Wufei looked down at Odin who sat at the edge of the driveway flinging fistfuls of gravel this way and that. "But he doesn't know for sure, does he? Treize could be alive. The sniper could have missed anything vital."
Duo wished he could believe that, but Zechs was a soldier, too. He knew death when he saw it.
"We don't know what's going on back in the sphere," Duo pointed out. "Not only could you be wastin' your time, you're risking your life."
Duo got a mulish frown. "Sooner or later, we'll have to return to get supplies. Might as well go back and see what we're up against."
That was true enough. What with Loki being four light years from the UESN these days, it meant that news took a while to get to them.
A rattle of gravel hit his boots. "Woowoo!" cried Odin. Wufei smiled.
"I should go with you," Duo sighed. "It was my fault he was in that situation to begin with."
"No," replied Wufei soberly. "It was mine. If I hadn't encouraged him to reach out for things he wasn't supposed to have..." The other pilot's voice trailed away and, for a moment, his gaze turned inward. "He risked his life for us," said Wufei finally. "We owe it to him to make certain. It might as well be me who goes."
Liar. That ain't why you're goin'.
Duo bent and picked up Odin, who squealed and wanted down again immediately. He slung the protesting baby under his arm and watched Wufei drive away. I would do the same for the person I loved. I would never believe Heero was dead until I held his lifeless body in my arms.
Turning, Duo saw the front door open.
Heero stood there, very much alive. "What are you doing?"
"Seeing Chang off."
"Da!" Odin yelled, thrashing frantically in Duo's grip. Duo set him down and watched him crawl as fast as he could across the grass toward the porch steps. Heero sat on one and waited for him to get there. Duo joined them.
Heero laughed and picked up the little boy, parking him on his knee. "Have you been eating dirt again?"
"What's up?" Duo asked, sitting down beside them. "I suppose the docs want us to get back to work. Why the hell are we makin' one of those damned inter-dimensional gates, anyway? If we can go through one, the Dzril can, too!"
Heero didn't reply. He simply sat, holding Odin, looking out over the lawns, at the spreading trees and occasional pond or stream. It occurred to Duo suddenly that he had never seen Heero's face so peaceful, so relaxed.
"They haven't figured out how to do it yet," Heero said finally, "but they will. Then we'll probably have to go through it and see what's on the other side. In the meantime..." He looked up and his eyes were shining. "...we're together."
Duo watched Odin squirm around until he was seated comfortably on Heero's lap. Two pairs of midnight blue eyes fixed contentedly on Duo's face. His heart turned over. "Yeah," he said, wrapping his arms around them both, quiet happiness spreading through him. "Yeah, we are."
Author's note: Is Treize really dead? Will the alien invaders ever attack? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, "The Secret of Dzril!" coming whenever I get it written. ^_^ Hope you enjoyed it!
Find more of Becca Abbott at The Erotic Fiction of Becca Abbott.