BGM for this chapter: “Aura” from .hack//SIGN original soundtrack 1
if you are near to the dark
I will tell you bout the sun
you are here, no escape
from my visions of the world
you will cry all alone
but it does not mean a thing to me
Chapter Seven: Thought and Memory
by Casey Valhalla
Duo sat back on his heels and pushed sweat-slicked bangs out of his face, leaving a black trail of grease across his forehead. He regarded the opened panels of a satellite receiver with some disdain, prodding a random wire with the screwdriver in his left hand.
He tossed the screwdriver back into a rusty toolbox nestled in the sand beside him and stretched, casting an evil glare at the high sun from behind his dark glasses. It was past noon. Past lunch time. His stomach growled.
Damn sun. Damn sand.
It was fucking *hot*.
Summers on Kaji were warm and humid, sometimes bordering on the uncomfortable, but at least they were bearable. Sabaku was something akin to the lower regions of Hell. Merciless, dry stifling heat that seared skin and dried out one’s sinuses until it was painful to breathe.
Duo was pretty damn sure it wasn’t even summer on this planet yet.
Fortunately, the Talmac’ s midwives brewed one hell of a sunscreen, so he had no qualms whatsoever about sitting in the sand at midday in nothing but a pair of baggy white drawstring pants and a cloth of undyed fabric wrapped around his head. Despite his pale complexion, he didn’t burn that easily, anyway.
~Probably has something to do with being a demon,~ he thought derisively.
At one time he might have known the answer to that. He shrugged against the weight of the planet’s oppressive heat and turned his attention back to the panels in front of him.
The internal circuitry of the device was damaged, but not as badly as the Manganac Captain had thought. The main cause of its malfunction was the sand that inevitably found its way into the maintenance panels. Repairing the wires and replacing a few chips had been easy – removing all the particles promised to be a time-consuming venture.
Duo went to work on the first panel with a soft brush and a tiny vacuum hose, gently cleaning the delicate interior of the receiver. He mentally listed off each part and its purpose in the grand design as he went, formulating a mental blueprint of the machinery.
~How many times have I done this?~
The thought made him pause. He shook himself and ignored his protesting stomach. It didn’t matter. Some things he just knew. Never mind that he couldn’t always remember where he learned them. ~The only reason I’m even wondering about this shit is because of that stupid circle…~
A memory that distant shouldn’t have come back as clearly as it did.
Duo had a good reason for wanting to forget, for giving up his memories to the flows of time that passed him by. He had reasons for wanting to live in the present without two thousand years of history weighing down on his mind. He had a good reason for not wanting to remember the face of his creator.
He just didn’t know what those reasons were.
~There was a war, wasn’t there? Some of the others still talk about it, but they don’t remember much, either.~
He shoved aside the questions piling up in his mind, returning to the task at hand. Wondering about it wasn’t going to solve anything. It wasn’t as though he could just decide to remember again.
The sun traveled across the sky, and the mental list of parts grew longer. The process became meditative, soothing, and he barely noticed the passing of time. His fingers absently traced the curve of plastic-encased wiring, and an image flashed across his mind’s eye. Fleeting, the way his oldest memories were supposed to surface.
A spritely woman in blue coveralls, her thick brown hair pulled into a ponytail that brushed her neck, spectacles perched on her nose, waist-deep in the guts of a space cruiser. She was smiling, laughing, a torque wrench raised in one hand, hazel eyes glittering with mirth. Duo grasped the image for a moment, uncertainly, then let it slide away.
He didn’t remember her name.
~Is she the one who taught me all this?~ Even as he wondered the vision was slipping from his thoughts, and after a moment he couldn’t even recall what he had seen.
What was it Wufei used to say? ~Someday we’ll all look back on this and laugh.~
Duo frowned as he sealed the first panel and moved on to the next. ~Someday I’ll look back on this, and it’ll be another blank spot in my head.~
He continued working. The sun continued moving.
A shadow fell across him, and he looked up to see the broad form of Rashid towering over him. The man cast his eyes over the gleaming equipment and settled a guarded gaze on Duo. “Any luck?”
The demon held back a cringe. The Manganac was practically radiating disapproval. “It’ ll work now, but you should get one of your techs to devise some kind of airtight sealing for these control panels. Sand can do a lot of damage fairly quickly.”
The man had the decency to look impressed. His cloth-covered head nodded once in approval as Duo fitted the cover back onto the base of the receiver. “The Minister will be glad to know.” Under his breath, almost too low to catch, he added, "At least we’ll see them coming, now."
Duo chose to ignore that comment. He stretched, rubbing his neck and guessing the time by the sun’s new position, then stood – and promptly fell down.
Somewhere beyond his spiraling senses he heard a low chuckle and felt a hand clasp over his bare shoulder. “You’ve been out here for hours. Take some water and try again, slowly.”
Duo slid into a sitting position from where he was sprawled in the sand, rubbing aching temples with both hands. His glasses had fallen off, letting the full glare of the desert sun attack his sensitive eyes. He realized with disdain that he was going to have a splitting headache very soon.
Damn having to exist in a weak human body, as well.
A bottle appeared in his line of sight, and he took it thankfully. His stomach reminded him rather loudly that it still required food.
“Sip, don’t gulp,” Rashid advised. He was kneeling next to Duo, still steadying the slight form with one hand and watching intently. Duo took the suggestion, but still finished off half the bottle before turning a grateful look at the man.
Rashid’s eyes widened slightly, but to his credit he neither backed away nor flinched at the deep glow. “So, you are one of them.”
“Quatre didn’t tell you?” Duo replaced his glasses but didn’t move otherwise. He had yet to regain confidence in his legs.
“No. Quatre tends not to find such information as race or decent pertinent in people he trusts. Take it as a compliment.”
Duo laughed, and suddenly felt better than he had in days. ~Quatre… I could really get to like that guy if I let myself.~ He grasped Rashid’ s offered hand and gradually levered himself back onto his feet, swaying a bit as the vertigo passed. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to eat in that tent, would you?”
“It’s possible.” The Manganac Captain kept a wary eye on Duo until he was sure the demon wasn’t going to collapse again, then turned and led their slow walk to the guard tent.
Duo fingered the seams of his pants idly and kicked his feet in the hot sand as he walked, training his eyes alternately on the ground and Rashid’ s imposing back. Thinking. So Quatre did have some faith in him after all. It was a pleasant thing to know. He made a mental note to thank the boy when he got the chance.
A faint stirring in the back of his mind distracted him. Great. Heero was awake. At least it meant he might get some new information, although he’d enjoyed the silence of his headspace during the past twelve hours.
Rashid held the tent flap open, and Duo slipped into the cool shade gratefully. Another Maganac was seated at the satellite’ s console, pleased that it was working again. Duo exchanged a satisfied smile with the dark-haired man, and began sniffing about for something edible.
“Is it picking up anything?” Rashid was talking to his subordinate. Duo tuned them out, having found a small cold-chest filled with fruit and bottles of water. He settled into a corner of the tent with a few apples and prodded the corner of his mind that connected him with his controller.
The reply was groggy and slightly annoyed. ~*Fine*~. Duo imagined that a response in person would have been more along the lines of ‘Fit as a fucking fiddle.’
He struggled to formulate his next question. Speaking through the Bond was infinitely more difficult than a Message spell; since it was a permanent mental connection, it was more than literally telepathic. Which was precisely the problem. It wasn’t easy picking out words from another person’ s thoughts, let alone coherent sentences. The most anyone could hope to manage, with practice, were single words, perhaps two if they were small.
~*Who?*~ That was simple enough, and Heero would know what he was talking about.
There was silence for a few minutes, and he felt Heero’s thoughts shift from irritation to anger and confusion. ~*Demons*~
Duo had unfortunately chosen that moment to bite into an apple and nearly choked on the fruit in his mouth, startling the guards. He waved them away with one hand and eased the coughs away with some water, waiting for his breath to come back under control before responding to Heero. His controller was waiting, thoughts tense.
Cold fury was knotting itself in Duo’s chest. ~*WHY?*~
He felt a mental flinch over the Bond. ~*Unconfirmed*~
Demons. Attacking *his* home. He wasn’t sure at what point Kaji had become ‘home,’ or when he had begun considering the people there to be *his* people; when had his protective instincts moved beyond what was left over from Heero’s and Wufei’s childhoods? The Bond itself was answer enough to that question – they were civilians. Innocents. Just as the people here on Sabaku were innocents.
And neither he nor any other Bound demon was capable of harming innocents.
Which meant that the attackers were lesser demons. Unregistered, unclassified, what amounted to powerless pond scum in the hierarchies of demon society. He heard something break, and realized he had crushed the clay bottle in his hand.
He wanted to lash out. He wanted an army to trample under his heels. He wanted to fly to Torreldaeo immediately and show the unwashed masses just what it meant to cross the Eldest Relic.
He could do none of these things.
~If I was free…~
Heero’s thoughts were radiating reassurance, soothing. Duo caught the memory of fingers running through his hair, not sure if it was his own consciousness that called it up or his controller’ s. Contact with reality faded, and somewhere in the mindspace of the Bond he felt himself relaxing, cradled against something warm, feather-light hands caressing his head. ‘Not now,’ a voice was saying. It sounded distant, but breath ruffled through his bangs as it spoke. ‘Let it be for now. There will be time to retaliate later…’
~Later…~ The anger faded but didn’t vanish, placed aside for the moment as the tactile vision seeped into his senses. He snuggled closer to the warmth, the unmistakable scent of Blue Magic surrounding him, feeling arms tighten around his shoulders. He drifted, nearly asleep…
Duo came awake with a snap, blinking at the interior of the tent. Rashid and his subordinate had their backs to him, bent over the control panel. ~What the fuck just happened?~
Heero was nudging at him through the Bond, and without thinking he sent a quick reply.
His controller seemed satisfied with that, and Duo felt his mind moving away from the Bond, towards another presence. Wufei.
Duo nodded to himself and stood, moving to peer over the Manganac’s shoulders. There was still an apple in his hand, and he munched at it absently, watching the flickering lights on the radar screen.
~What was that? Was I dreaming? I could have sworn Heero was here, I could smell him. He was – he was holding me…~ Duo shook his head. ~I’ve been out in the sun too damn long.~
“There they are.”
His attention snapped back to the control panel at Rashid’s words. A line of blinking dots were forming along the atmosphere on the radar screen.
The ISG had arrived.
Quatre ran, maneuvering through the corridors of the Talmac as quickly as he could without unseating the small cat perched on his shoulders. His footsteps echoed eerily in the empty halls, now void of all human presence save a small assemblage of soldiers. The last of the civilians had evacuated early that morning. And now, the warning bells of his intuition ringing shrilly in his mind, he fled the lower ballroom for the front gates.
Even as he ran he mentally grappled with a Message spell, desperately trying to link with his consort on Kaji. ~Something is not right here. What’s going on? I have to know, Trowa, you have to contact me!~
He skidded to a halt in the main foyer, one hand on the doorknob of the wooden doors that led to the outer gate. He sucked in a lungful of air, clutching at his fleeting composure. The cat offered a soft meow in his ear, and as he straightened he heard a familiar voice ringing in his mind.
~*I am here, love. What’s wrong?*~
Quatre let out a breath and sagged against the doors to keep himself from collapsing into a boneless heap on the floor. ~*Dear Allah and all the saints, it’s good to hear your voice.*~
Trowa’s statement bore a mental frown. ~*Your spell is weak. You’re exhausted.*~
~*I’ll be fine. Just tell me what you know.*~
Quatre pushed the doors open and stepped outside as Trowa recounted the attack on Kaji. The main gates were ajar, a group of Manganacs clustered just inside, arguing and hollering orders through the cast-iron doors. They noted his presence quickly and stepped aside from the gates, stiffening to attention and saluting as he passed, moving out into the bright desert sun.
~*An army of lesser demons at an unknown command. I did not forsee this, Trowa.*~
~*Neither did I. Did the Relic pass through security on your end?*~
~*Negative. Though I doubt his presence here will remain secret from the Interstellar Government for long.*~
Quatre turned his gaze to the sky, where bright spots of metal reflected the sunlight, growing and forming into familiar shapes as he watched. ~*They’re here.*~
A stampede of foreign emotions passed through him: fear, concern, distress, failure. Aching need.
Beyond all of it Quatre felt a complete calm settle over him as he watched the ISG fleet descend. ~*You are too late, my love. Do what you can. I will be here.*~
Duo was standing in the sand not far from him, motionless, staring at the ships in the sky. The demon seemed unconcerned that he was wearing nothing but thin cotton pants and a sheen of sweat, but he was poised where he stood. As Quatre watched he raised one hand slowly to pull the glasses off his face, a controlled movement, smooth with a dangerous grace.
Quatre likened him to a cobra, coiled and preparing to strike.
~We are all fell creatures in the end, when the enemy has us caged and backed into a corner. Then we loose our claws and fangs; then we show our true natures. We are alone here, now, my friend. I shall be the scarab, and you my serpent.~
The cat leapt off his shoulders and twined herself about her person’s feet. Duo looked over to appraise Quatre’s presence and offered a deadly smile. “ Ten battle cruisers, over a hundred fighters. The command ship is in orbit.”
The Minister nodded, already formulating tactics. “I want everyone inside. Meet me on the causeway in half an hour.”
The demon’s eyes glowed, something feral glimmering in the violet light. “There’s a Relic on the command ship.”
Quatre’s eyes flickered back and forth from him to the sky. “Are you sure?”
“I know.” Duo turned from his vigil and strode silently back to the Talmac, the cat trailing behind. Quatre cast one last look at the fleet and followed.
The iron doors swung shut behind him, ringing as they met. The sound echoed in his ears for the rest of that day and into the night, a bell tone of finality.