Bones Of A Fallen Angel
by D.C. Logan
Dalen climbed the rest of the way to the edge of the bluff and looked over the valley below him. The land dropped off sharply below his feet and he carefully shuffled around in a 360-degree pan to gain his bearings. It was getting dark, and this was the last opportunity and the best vantage point to make one last attempt to find themselves. "Hey Tizo, hand me the map will ya?"
Tizo handed up the much-abused map and waited patiently in the semidarkness for Dalen to make sense of it. But Dalen didn't look pleased. His eyes went from paper to trees, paper to slope, and back again - trying without success to establish their relative position on the trail. They were the last two sent out on the advanced rogaining trial, so there were no teams to follow them and redirect their obviously wrong path.
Tizo unstrapped his pack and set it carefully at his feet, taking the opportunity to rest while Dalen figured out their best option for the night. Without a compass and with heavy cloud cover from the approaching storm, he knew their options were limited. It was just a matter of where best to wait out the impending rain. He'd leave the decision up to Dalen. That was usually the easier option anyway. He looked around in respect for and amazement of his surroundings.
So, this was earth. Even in a chilling semidarkness with the promise of a wet night ahead of him, he found it beautiful, stunning actually. This was their senior class trip, and he'd looked forward to doing this for years. The L2 cluster's senior project sent just thirty students each year. He'd been lucky to get selected.
Even getting lost and coming in last in the competition (which seemed likely at this point) couldn't spoil his enjoyment - though Dalen didn't seem to share his attitude. He looked frustrated and indecisive, alternately studying the map and turning in place trying without success to match lines to topography. Tizo watched him smack the map to his forehead in a classic "I give up" gesture and he turned from the overlook point and collapsed on the talus strewn slope next to him.
"Okay, we're lost, I can't get a star bearing, and the storm is heading this way. I think our best move is to find some kind of shelter and camp out for the night. Once the storm moves out I can get a bearing and we can find our way out of here. Make sense? If not, at least we're in a stable location and they can fly in and find us if we're _really_ off track."
Tizo gave a supportive shrug. He usually followed Dalen's lead, and his plan was well considered and probably their best option. He shifted his balance, climbed to his feet, and shrugged back into his pack. Then he extended a hand down to Dalen who locked wrists with him and accepted a steady pull to his feet.
Together the two of them moved single file down the narrow path, avoiding the loose stones that skittered down the slope ahead of them.
"Hey, what do you suppose this is?" Dalen walked around the object in the creeping darkness. It was roughly twice his height, and stretched out for meters in either direction. Its features were obscured by a heavy blanket of vegetation. Whatever it was, it had been abandoned here years ago. It had fallen through the canopy of firs here at the edge of the tree line. And either its impact or its settling weight had driven it into the earth. He struck it experimentally with the walking stick he'd acquired while walking down the mountain. It made a distinctly metallic sound. He tried parting the vines that clung about it, and saw a painted surface.
"A plane of some type maybe," was Tizo's suggestion. He too was curiously parting the leaves, trying to fit what small part of it he could see into something that made sense. It was like trying to imagine the outside of a house based on a view from the upstairs bedroom. He struck the metal a hard blow with the end of his flashlight. It didn't scratch. At all. Strange.
He could hear Dalen, tramping around the structure, it appeared to be intact, and he was tapping the side of it with his staff as he walked all around its circumference.
He walked back to Tizo, shrugged again, and pointed out a part of the craft where a limb branched out from the fuselage portion (or whatever it was).
"How about using this for two sides of our shelter? We can brace the tent across the top, and if the wind picks up, it should give us good cover. Besides, something this big and metal has to be on the survey map. It should be easy to detect from the air with radar equipment, and that'll make us easier to find. I don't see it marked on our map though. We must really be off course."
They used what little daylight they had left to secure their impromptu campsite. By the time the storm arrived, they were under cover and contentedly munching on their meal bars.
But they didn't sleep much or well. The storm passed over within a hour, but the strong wind had driven rain under their shelter and they were damp. It took the glow off of the adventure to have to put on half-wet socks and soaked shoes to walk out to take a piss against a nearby tree. Dalen looked up at the sagging tarp, not his idea of fun at all. Tizo looked like he was having a good time. But that was Tizo for you, adaptable in all things.
There was a resonating "bong" as something hit the metal side of their shelter with some force. They looked at each other, startled. "Tree branch maybe?" said Tizo. Dalen held up a hand for silence and they waited. It didn't repeat, but just as they both started to relax, a voice rang out over their tent.
"Hail the camp!" The voice sounded older than theirs, younger than their field trip guide, and wasn't recognized by either of them. Dalen felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather run up his spine and settle at the base of his neck. They couldn't hear any approaching footsteps over the residual rain dropping from the surrounding trees, but the voice was suddenly closer, and tinged with good-natured humor. "Am I interrupting anything?"
A young man with a open and friendly expression moved into the range of their flashlight and stood a few meters from them as Dalen played the beam of light over him. He held his arms up to indicate an absence of threat and moved within conversational distance. He looked both of them over, took in their campsite in a glance, and grinned. "I live nearby and I heard you setting up camp. I just wanted to make sure that you were okay since that storm moved in harder than I thought it would."
They looked at each other. "You _live_ out here?" queried Tizo. "Really?"
The stranger laughed and crouched down on his ankles, maintaining eye contact while dropping to their level. "Yeah, what's so weird about that? It's quiet, and I like the solitude that living alone gives you. I've lived out here for years." He cast his eye over their shelter. "Looks like you did okay in the storm though - good idea pitching your tent here - that storm blew really hard. Anyway, now that I've satisfied myself that you're both doing fine, I'll be heading back."
"Hey, wait a minute! You've lived here for a while? What is this? Is it a plane? A spaceship?" Dalen queried after the man's retreating back. He stopped, turned, and walked back to their camp.
"You really want to know?"
They both nodded their heads.
He walked closer to them this time, and leaned against the metal hull close to their tent. He made eye contact with Tizo, then Dalen, and grinned in anticipation. "Guess I better introduce myself then. Duo Maxwell, at your temporary service," and he gave a slight bow for their benefit. Matching jaws dropped open.
"But, but, you've been missing for years! You've been on earth all this time?!"
"Yup, me and Deathscythe here," he patted the metal panel he was leaning against. "This was as far as he could make it, and it seemed like a nice enough place to settle down - quiet, peaceful. When you spend your childhood battling Earth and the colonies, you get hassled by people a lot. No one can find me here unless _I_ want them to."
Tizo and Dalen spent the next hours questioning Duo about his part in the war; about each of the other Gundam pilots; and asked as many questions as they could think of about what piloting a Gundam had been like.
By the time midmorning rolled around, it was obvious that the heavy mist wasn't going to dissipate any time soon. But under Duo's watchful eyes, they dismantled their shelter and took another look around the famous Gundam. Now that they knew what they were looking at, the proportions and extensions all made sense. Duo continued to answer all their questions with an unexpected good humor. "Doesn't anyone ever come to visit you?"
"Well, I've got some friends out there... but no, they haven't been to visit me in a while. Maybe someday when they find the time..." And not much was said after that. Duo led the two boys to the edge of the tree line and pointed out basic directions and landmarks on the way back into the interior of the region and back to their expected rondevoux point. And he stood under the tallest pine tree in the break and waved them on their way through the fog.
The day was unusually sunny and bright for late October. The expedition, two men, two boys, and packs full of electronic and photographic equipment made its straggling way down the narrow mountain trail and towards the tree line at its base. Bright gold aspen and green pine fought for superiority along the narrow strip in the rocky terrain. The less hardy trees had already shed their leaves, leaving gaps in the wall of foliage. The boys' chatter was loud and excited in the relative silence of the uninhabited country.
Two of their heroes, Chang Wufei and the famous Heero Yuy, had been _very_ interested in the man they'd met during their school trip. Interested enough to pay their way back for a second visit back to earth. When an aerial survey had turned up nothing in the area they remembered getting lost in, the heroes of the war of AC195 and the Eve War had asked them to lead them personally back to the fallen Gundam and Duo's home.
"It should be over there I think. It looks different in daylight, it was nearly dark when we came down from the mountain last time."
The two boys ran ahead, canvassing the trail for any landmarks they could remember. The two men followed along at a slower pace, but anxious as well. Hardly daring to believe that a puzzle seven years in the making might suddenly have an answer to it. The question all of the remaining pilots had desperately searched for an answer to: where had Duo fled after the Eve War?
Excited shouts from within the tree line brought Heero and Wufei running towards them. The two boys were jogging excitedly towards what was undoubtedly an object of considerable size, but so covered with vegetation that it was difficult to determine what was under it. The leaves of the vines were red veined with gold, and twisted in the light breeze. Heero and Wufei approached it cautiously, walking around it and carefully calculating its dimensions as Tizo and Dalen ran off, roaming in the nearby wood for Duo's cabin. Based on their conversation with him, it should have been within an easy walk of the mobile suit. Excited calls for "Duo Maxwell" rang through the quiet woods.
Heero looked at Wufei, who took up a guard position between Deathscythe and the boys while Heero scaled the side of the suit. If this was Duo's suit, and everything so far indicated that it was, he should be able to trip the manual releases for the hatch - even after all this time. And yes, the hidden panel _was_ there, revealed when Heero stripped away long trailers of vines with his hands, the vine's tendrils finding no purchase save gravity on the slick gundanium shell. He had to hit the panel with considerable force to open it, and the manual hatch lever took brute strength to pry open - it must have jammed on impact. Wufei's face appeared beside his own as he prepared to open the door. He spared a questioning glance at Wufei, and his silent partner shrugged in reply.
Duo was waiting for him. As he always said he would. He was grinning even in death, the flesh peeled back from his bones, skin desiccated in the air-tight compartment of the Gundam. Still strapped into his pilot's couch, skeletonized hands still at the controls. He was the personification of the God of Death, now and forever. And whatever slim hope Heero had carried in him died and passed out in a long strangled breath.
Wufei laid a gentle hand on his shoulder in silent sympathy, but said nothing. After a moment's pause, Heero shrugged off the warm hand and lowered himself next to his dead friend, staring him in the face one last time. He reached down to the hatch panel under the left instrumentation deck and tripped the latch. All of Duo's prized possessions, the ones he thought the other pilots knew nothing about. He took them out of the cabinet one by one, the books, Duo's personal logbook, the small tokens and gifts he had treasured and kept close to hand. These Heero took and placed into his canvas bag. And Duo's black baseball cap, resting on the slanted floor - that Heero took for himself.
And he accepted Wufei's hand up through the hatch door. And he looked back down at his friend for the last time, and sealed the hatch with a solid thunk. It was a simple matter after that of recharging the timer battery from the spare power cell Wufei had carried in, and collecting the boys for the long walk back to the landing area.
The young boys has been disbelieving, and more than a bit rattled to find that the subject of their search, and the man with whom they believed they'd spoken had been a quiet corpse for seven years. They'd been rattled to realize they'd slept alongside him. And understandably confused about how they'd managed to hold a conversation and walk with a ghost. Wufei had nodded understandingly and supportingly. Heero just walked, and thought, and tried to put the pieces of his hopes back into the paces where he wouldn't trip over them ever again. It was over, Duo was gone, and there was only one thing left to do.
When the small party reached the mountain path, Heero turned, said a small, very private goodbye, and held the remote detonator in the direction of Deathscythe. He looked at Wufei, who nodded, and pressed the button. The metallic click was followed by the sound of a massive detonation and the lingering scent of hot metal and charred earth. The smell of destruction followed the four survivors up the mountain, and remained with each of them even after the smoking remains were well out of sight.
Heero woke late that night. A sliver of cold passed over his skin, and he flinched involuntarily at the thought that came with it. He'd buried a friend that day. The first of his friends to die, and the one he missed the most in his life. He wondered how many others he'd bury in the future; what his life would bring him next. And he flipped his pillow over, pulled the thin hotel-room blanket over his bare shoulder and tried desperately to fall back to sleep.
And as he fell into a quiet, restful slumber, he could almost feel Duo's warm presence in the room, and hear his soft whisper. Almost. And then he slept with quiet peaceful dreams - and no more nightmares. Ever again, Duo had promised him that...