Chapter 24: System Check
by Casey Valhalla
"I am *not* piloting that Corellian piece of crap!"
Wufei looked over the space cruiser dubiously, one eyebrow crooked, before turning his gaze back to Duo. The demon's stance was stiff, his arms crossed defiantly over his chest, a line creasing along his forehead. Wufei shrugged.
"No one said you had to pilot it," Heero replied, half-hidden on Duo's other side. The assassin was pointedly looking everywhere other than at his Relic. "I'll do it."
Duo snorted softly, staring down at the metallic tiling of the docking bay floor and shuffling his feet. "Fine, then. I'm not *co*-piloting that Corellian piece of crap."
"Suit yourself," Heero muttered, and he sounded more defeated than the inane banter should have caused him to be. Wufei frowned, but the assassin didn't see the expression, turning slowly to walk over to the cruiser's cargo ramp.
The Dragon watched Heero's progress until he disappeared inside the ship. Without shifting his gaze, he jerked his chin at Duo. "What's got into him?"
"How the hell should I know?" Duo's head shot up, glaring at the side of Wufei's face. His tone was suddenly defensive.
"For that matter, what's gotten into you?"
Duo held his ground for a moment, perfectly still, then broke his stare abruptly. "Leave it alone, Fei."
The demon shuffled away, following the same route as Heero. He stopped at the ramp, however, and turned to lean back against the hull of the cruiser, darting disinterested glances around the bay.
Wufei peered down at the cat sitting quietly beside his ankle. "Worse than usual, eh, Yoko?"
"And here I thought I was making progress." The elf's voice was soft behind him.
Wufei canted his head to look Trowa over and nodded. "If they weren't both so damn bull-headed we wouldn't need to be nudging them together to begin with."
The last of the Resistance forces were convening in the docking bay. A number of cruisers were in line at the hatch, waiting for their turn to depart. Through the window of the control room, Wufei could see Meiran speaking heatedly with Hilde and the blonde Relic he'd barely been introduced to, Naki. His attention turned to the door opening at the top of the stairs, and he stepped forward as a small procession began descending to the bay floor, Trowa following behind.
Quatre arrived first, Chea by his side, freed from his bonds now and grinning widely. Halberd and Glave were a few steps behind, bantering the values of uranium trade ordinances and the likeliness of diplomatic immunity. Dorothy trailed in their wake, her posture erect, head high, but she kept her eyes focused on the ground.
The end of the procession consisted of a pair of Resistance soldiers with white armbands, holding a bound and blindfolded woman in a rumpled flight suit between them.
"Codenames only," Quatre spoke softly once he'd stopped in front of Wufei, jerking his head to indicate the prisoner. "The Whitesnake generals need orders, and Opal, I'm afraid, isn't in the best of spirits."
"What about the kid?" Wufei nodded at Chea, who was arranging his new dark-gray flight suit and rocking on his heels. The goggles around his forehead made his bangs stick up comically.
"His current status is operative-on-probation," Quatre replied, the shadow of a smirk playing over his features. "He'll be reporting to Wing."
Trowa coughed sharply and Wufei swayed backwards slightly, his eyebrows jumping up towards his hairline. "Does Wing know about that?"
"He will." Quatre swung his right arm out and gestured to the two soldiers without looking, indicating a waiting cruiser with two fingers. He raised his voice enough to be heard by all parties present. "Don't forget, those orders are per Sandrock, gentlemen."
A duet of "Sir!" was the reply, and the soldiers began hauling their scowling burden to the ship. Chea paused in his rocking for a second, then darted between Quatre and Wufei in pursuit of his former partner.
The Prime Operative's snappish tone brought the cadet to a wavering halt. Chea looked back warily over his shoulder, then back towards the retreating soldiers. "Janus."
The prisoner jerked against her captors and twisted in place, trying to face the voice she'd heard. The soldiers tightened their grips and continued hauling her forward. Janus's lips twisted against her teeth in a grimace, and her voice was a rough hiss.
Chea froze in place, his arms dropping limply to his sides. The soldiers and their cargo disappeared into the cruiser, and the ship rolled away into the queue.
"Chea." Quatre's voice was softer this time. "Our cruiser is waiting. Go on."
The cadet squared his shoulders and was smiling grimly when he turned back around. Wufei returned the look, and Trowa clapped him once on the shoulder as he passed, walking a silent line towards the ship. Wufei sighed. "Quatre, you now have a shipful of gloomy persons to deal with. I can't say I envy you."
"I think I'll manage," the Prime Operative replied, saluting Wufei smartly with a tug at his forelock. "I look forward to meeting you again. Good luck. If you'll excuse me." Quatre's eyes strayed to the elf, and Wufei stepped aside, a knowing smile on his face.
"If you please, Master Chang," Glave was the next to approach him, "but my compatriot and I have somewhat of a disagreement. I am reasonably sure that the Catharta syndicate's internal government follows parliamentary procedure, while Halberd here-"
"Knowing somewhat better," the aforementioned interrupted, "I believe their methods resemble more the Deveciunt alternative procedures. If I remember correctly."
"We've used both," Dorothy offered softly from behind them. "But currently the council has adopted Tribal Succession. It's more primitive, but simpler in the long run."
Halberd raised his eyebrows and peered at the girl over the tops of his spectacles, while Glave gave a sweeping bow with a murmured, "Milady."
"If that's settled," Wufei said, easing a smirk off his face, "gentlemen, Miss Dorothy Catalonia. She'll be accompanying you back to the Modicum."
"Ah!" Halberd exclaimed suddenly, clasping his hands together. "The daughter of the illustrious Westley Catalonia? Please, I implore you," the tall man took her hand reverently and bowed over it, "forgive me my discourtesy."
Dorothy looked somewhat startled, but a smile began spreading across her face. Glave beamed at her. "Your father was a brilliant politician, my dear. As well as a vicious adversary."
"Then it seems I have a lot to live up to," she replied. Her smile had turned playfully sinister.
"I'll leave you to it," Wufei said, bowing quickly to all three. He paused to place a folded note in Dorothy's hand. "Send me reports periodically. I'll keep you informed."
"Whitesnake is prepared to act at any time," Glave announced.
"My thanks." Wufei turned back to the waiting cruiser, and chuckled to himself when he heard the argument of political discrepancies refuel among the three he was leaving behind.
Quatre and Trowa had retreated to a corner, face-to-face with hands on each other's shoulders, exchanging whispered words and fleeting kisses in between sentences. Wufei turned from the scene to accord the couple some privacy, only to see Duo watching the two intently. The demon's eyes were flickering like a broken light bulb.
Wufei shook his head slightly and walked over to him, taking Duo by the shoulder and steering him towards the open cargo ramp. "I have a favor to ask."
"Do your best to keep Heero and the new recruit from killing each other, would you?" He offered Duo a wry smile and wrinkled his nose. "I'd like to see you all on Sen'Darven in one piece."
The Relic stared at Wufei evenly for a moment, a blank look coating Duo's features. Then Yoko meowed her condolences from his feet, and Duo's lips quirked up in an answering smirk. "I'll see what I can do."
The Dragon sighed, pulling an expression of long-suffering. "It's the most I can expect these days."
"You don't like it, get into another line of work," Duo announced, poking him in the chest. The demon grinned, finally, and the glow in his eyes deepened to match the look. "And don't *even* start with the 'I'm getting too old for this' crap."
"Not at all, my friend," Wufei replied, and watched as Duo climbed up the ramp into the cruiser, disappearing with a wave and the farewell flick of Yoko's tail. "Not at all."
"We're making history, you know," Hilde was saying. "The first ever hyperspace jump of an A-class mothership with a crew of ten."
"On the record, at least." Trowa peered through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the promenade they were walking along. A pair of figures in dark silver space suits were hovering outside the ship, visible along a bulge in the ship's profile. "What are they doing?"
"Covering the Resistance colors with a corporate logo," Meiran replied, pausing at his shoulder. "We can't just waltz into the orbit of an ISG planet with a ship this size and expect not to be noticed."
"So we're posing as a pleasure cruise ship," Wufei commented dryly.
"Brilliantly simple." Trowa smiled slightly and stepped away from the windows. His voice dropped into a melodic timbre. "Alas, Janico, thy gleaming spires have faded. When didst thy emerald forests become yon sallow bloodberry fields; why didst thou make slaves of thy gracious children?"
"Still as sentimental as always," Naki murmured. She had taken up position leaning against the corridor wall, and fell back into stride alongside Meiran once the group continued on.
"Just keep the current mission in perspective." Wufei shoved his hands in his pockets and strode a few paces ahead of the others. "We're trying to liberate the lower galaxy, not just one lonely planet."
"In truth, Sen'Darven, once thou wast fair," Trowa continued. He was strolling languidly along the corridor, thumbs hooked in his belt-loops, head bowed, eyes closed, a secret smile worrying the corners of his mouth. "Once thy hills and valleys didst shine 'neath the summer sun. Once far in times now gone thy people reveled amongst thy jeweled flowers-"
"And fairest of all jewels, thy sky-borne dragonkind," Naki finished quickly. "That's enough, Trowa."
"You don't like my song?" The elf opened his eyes and blinked innocently. The Relic scowled at him. "You despise my elvish sentimentality," he said simply. "The love of beautiful things disagrees with you."
"Nothing beautiful stays that way," she replied, stepping forward to catch up with Wufei. "Not completely."
Trowa caught her arm and brought them to a halt. Hilde gave the two a strange look and paused, but Meiran urged her on. Trowa waited until the rest of the group had disappeared around a corner, leaving him alone with Naki, before he spoke. "True beauty is flawed to begin with. You should be wise enough to know that by now."
"Wisdom," Naki murmured, eyes glimmering in the low light of the corridor. For a moment her expression faltered, open and vulnerable, then she bared her teeth and yanked her arm out of Trowa's grip. "Wisdom should learn silence, and leave the rest of us in the peace of ignorance."
The elf closed his eyes again and shrugged slightly. "If that's what you want." His eyes fluttered open and caught her in a hard stare. "Will you accept advice, if not wisdom?"
"We were friends, once."
Naki held her ground for a moment, then deflated and folded her arms, as though she were collapsing in on herself. Her voice came out in a weak whisper. "What?"
"Forget," Trowa said softly. "Let yourself forget, and let him go."
"Hm." The sound was a grunt of amused self-deprecation. "You make it sound so easy."
Trowa smiled and began walking again. "If it was, you wouldn't need someone to tell you."
"I'm going to kill him."
"No, you're not."
"No, Heero," Quatre repeated. "No killing allowed."
The assassin hunched his shoulders and threw himself ungracefully into the pilot's seat. "Why did you have to saddle *me* with him?"
"It was Trowa's idea, actually."
"The elf dies first."
"Killing the Prime Operative's lover is considered an act of treason."
"Then arrest me now, and we'll all save ourselves a great deal of trouble."
Quatre heaved a deep sigh, and imagined he'd be doing the same thing for the next day or two until the ship touched down on Sen'Darven. And probably for some time after that as well.
"Excuse me, sir." Chea tapped the blond's shoulder and grinned beseechingly. Quatre stepped aside so he could enter the cockpit. "Ah! There's my new parole officer."
"Sit down and shut up," Heero growled.
"Nice to see you again, too." Chea saluted Quatre smartly and dropped into the co-pilot's chair. "Guess you know who to call when the Resistance saddles you with a Corellian junker, huh?"
"You're only here because Duo refused to co-pilot," the assassin replied, pointedly ignoring the former cadet's winning smile while entering coordinates in the nav computer. "Otherwise you'd be transported in the preferred method - bound, gagged, and in the cargo bay."
"Duo." Chea murmured, drawing the safety harness across his chest thoughtfully. "Is he the pissed-off looking demon guy who was standing outside the ship?"
"Oh." The blond pilot tapped a few buttons, bringing up visuals on the viewscreen, and leaned back in his seat, pulling his goggles down over his eyes. "I don't think he likes you very much."
Heero made a very strange noise - something between a snort and a squeak - and leveled a freezing glare at Chea. "Thank you for that astute assessment, Operative Mouth. Begin systems check, and in the future, refrain from any further analysis of the interpersonal relationship between myself and my Relic."
"Oh, he's *yours*?" The cadet blinked a few times and flipped a toggle. "Main thrusters are go. Well then, that changes everything."
"Main thrusters, check, secondary thrusters online. What the hell are you talking about?"
"Obviously, you did something to piss him off. Secondary thrusters, check. Hydraulics are go. You know, just because he's a demon and tougher than most people doesn't give you an excuse to be mean to him. Main engine online."
"Hydraulics, check. Main engine, check. It isn't that easy. Secondary engines are go."
"Sure it is. Secondary engines, check. All systems online. All you have to do is apologize."
Heero flipped another toggle and fired the boosters. The ship rumbled to life, and he waved at Chea to take the controls and guide them out of the docking bay. "I already did. And it doesn't make a damn bit of a difference."
Seol Runair strode through the catacombs with all the authority afforded to her rank. The corridors were dark and musty with the smell of dank underground, the path lit with intermittent yellow lamps that flickered weakly against the reddish-brown cavern walls. Piles of random items littered the edges of the corridor, some of it furniture, some of it broken or unused machinery and electronic equipment. Some of it was unidentifiable in the dim light, but most were things she was certain she didn't want to inspect any closer.
Some distance ahead a rectangle of white light spilled into the hall, illuminating a precarious tower of scrap metal and the outline of a doorway carved directly into the rock. Metal hinges reflected the light into her eyes, nearly blinding after wandering the catacombs for the better part of an hour. She shielded her face with one hand and gritted her teeth, squinting as she finally arrived in the doorway and turned to step inside.
"Admiral Runair. What a pleasantly unexpected surprise."
She scowled in the general direction of the nasal voice that greeted her. "What a carefully veiled insult, doctor. Fortunately for you, I'm not here for the pleasure of your company, or any of your associates, and I don't plan on remaining here a moment longer than I have to."
"Wonderful to hear, admiral. Your honestly, as always, is appreciated."
Runair blinked several times and lowered her hand, her eyes adjusting to take in the biomechanical eyes staring her down, and the mouthful of teeth bared in a flat, skeletal grin. "Enough, J. Just tell me where he is."
"Ah." The doctor turned to face the gaping laboratory with a squeal of metal against stone. "The admiral wishes to see her Master."
The second figure in the room was bent over a silver lab table, surrounded by several beakers and vials, scribbling madly at a sheaf of paper. The mop of gray hair shading the man's face shook slightly. "Yes, yes, but why are you bothering *me* about it?"
"She needs an escort, and I'm busy at the moment."
"So am I. Get one of the others." The mustache half-hidden under the fall of hair twitched twice, sharply.
"You're doing something only remotely important, and I have a corrosive chemical mixture to monitor. Go on."
The second doctor grumbled to himself and dropped his pen against the table with a clatter, then shuffled to his feet and straightened his white smock. One beady eye peered at Runair from behind the unruly gray hair. "I don't suppose you have any good news for us if you're here in person."
"No," she replied, biting off the word with a snap. "All the more reason to get this over with as quickly as possible."
"Right this way." The doctor motioned with one wrinkled hand and lead her through the back door of the laboratory.
If the main corridors of the catacombs were bad, there were no words to describe the deeper passageways. Most of them were kept dark on purpose. Runair had been through them enough times to know better than to wonder what lay beyond the tiny pools of lamplight, or why her boots occasionally encountered something other than stone.
The worst, though, was the last room before her Master's chambers. It was fully lit, kept on display like a grotesque trophy hall.
The stone glowed in the fluorescent light, the walls sparkling in streaks of blue and buff. One side of the long room was lined with machines, a set of ten cryogenic chambers propped against the wall like a standing row of imperial guards. Technology stolen from the upper galaxy thousands of years ago. Two of them were completely frozen over, whatever originally lay inside now permanently encased in a shroud of white. Five were badly cracked, the figures within pale and frozen solid, but permanently dead. One was missing half of the front casing, and the corpse it contained leered grimly at all who passed by, it's skin withered and mummified from years in a sealed cavern. One more yet was pristine, its occupant apparently sleeping, but the monitors blinking around the perimeter of the chamber scrolled the information repeatedly - there was a contaminant in the system, an ancient virus too unpredictable to risk reviving the frozen individual.
The last machine was empty.
The doctor waved Runair into the room beyond and turned on his heel, heading back to the laboratory. She squared her shoulders, and stepped inside.
The dimensions of the room were impossible to discern; the only light pooled in a circle around a large oak desk, a high-backed leather chair behind it, the occupant hidden and facing away from her. She stopped just outside the lit ring and waited.
"Seol." The voice was melodious, and seemed to come from all directions at once.
"Master," she murmured in response.
"I received word. You were defeated." The voice's timbre remained constant, showing no sign of the true emotion behind the words it was speaking. "This does not please me."
"My Relic was killed, Master." Runair clasped her hands behind her back and bowed her head, squeezing her eyes shut, trying to hide the remorse in her tone. "What should I do now?"
The admiral's head jerked up. The voice had faltered, just for an instant. "Master?"
"The Eldest. I sent him to kill the Grand Minister, and the Eldest killed him in defense." She swallowed, and continued, softer. "It was my own misjudgment. I apologize."
The voice fell silent, and the moment stretched so long that Runair wanted to scream just to break it. "Master?"
"Return to Niccon III. Find the Resistance base, and the name of the new Prime Operative. I will send you word."
"Seol." The name was like a caress.
The admiral straightened and clicked her heels together, staring down the back of the chair with a blazing gaze. "Yes, Master."