Buried in Dust
The contents of the envelope lay scattered over the table Duo and his crew took their meals at. Heero sorted through the mess, separating keycards for a dozen security levels, passcodes to memorise, and a set of ID badges. Heero noted that there were two in there, one for each of them, and Duo told him that Une paid a whole lot extra to contract his ship when he'd had another gig lined up for this week.
"Guess she knew I wouldn't turn the job down," Duo said, flipping open a handheld and sliding in the data disc that had been the last item to drop out of the envelope.
When it began with an audio file, Duo passed him one of the headphone earpieces and keyed the message to start over. Wufei's voice issued them a greeting before continuing on: "Either you've decoded the message timed for delivery at 1900 hours standard, or one of you couldn't keep your hands off the transport unit. You know which option and which one of you my money is on.
"Everything you need and need to know has been handed to you, so I'll keep this brief. You two are the only ones that myself and the Director trust to handle the situation. Circumstances required this sort of subterfuge. I suspect you're both...angry. I will personally answer any and all questions when you return with the target. Winter out."
Duo broke the silence, saying, "I don't know whether to be overjoyed or pissed the fuck off that the asshole is still alive."
"He won't be once I get my hands on him," Heero said. He jerked the earpiece out and fished around in his pocket for the small jewellery box he'd been carrying around with him everywhere. The bastard was lucky he hadn't just thrown the damn thing out.
"What's that?" Duo asked, eyeing the earring Heero pulled out.
"It has processing capabilities similar to your handheld, recording, transmitting, the usual. The software, however, has neural links. They call it greyware," Heero explained, looking around for something thin enough to hit the pressure plate.
"Sounds expensive," Duo said, handing Heero a bit of wire when he guessed what Heero needed.
"Your tax dollars at work," Heero said. He accepted the wire with a quiet thank you and triggered the switch. As he slipped the earring in, the familiar disorientation of the system keying in to his brainwaves made his stomach twist in on itself.
Duo chuckled darkly and called up the data relevant to the hardcopy maps Heero spread out on the table. The mission profile itself was simple, but simple didn't mean easy. The smash and grab for data included making contact with an operative on the inside who might need extraction. Although not explicitly stated in the profile, it strongly implied Syndicate funding. The operation had been far larger than Heero had been aware of.
"The installation is in the same sector we're headed for currently, but we'll need to alter course," he said. He formed the commands in his mind to connect to Duo's handheld. "Did that work?"
Duo looked confused an instant before blurting out a, "Holy shit!" when the info popped up on his screen. A lopsided smile curved his lips. "Technology, it's fucking magic."
"It should take us roughly fourteen hours to reach the installation," Heero estimated aloud.
Duo grunted his agreement and sat on the edge of the table. "You know, I think I might be the only legit captain crazy enough to hit this region of space."
"Well, mostly legit," Duo said. He tapped his finger against the image rendering the asteroid's perimeter defences. "This place has more sensor sweeps than the bedroom of the President's daughter."
"Your registry scrambler will --"
"Be useless," Duo interrupted. "Your remember McKenzie's unfortunate timing? The piece higher up on the chain that actually powers the unit went poof. No way to jury rig it either so we can't just sail on in under false colours."
Heero cursed. The keycards were useless. They'd have to find a way to go in dark and heavily armed. He started entertaining options including a free float in the suits he'd seen in the engine room that were used for lengthy, external repairs. Duo, however, didn't look so much concerned as thoughtful.
"When we met you at the rendezvous point, do you remember how far we were before your sensors picked us up?"
"Not precisely, but pretty damn close. About five hundred metres, maybe less," Heero answered. "By the look on your face I take it that instrument check I left orders for was unnecessary."
Scratching lightly at the side of his nose, Duo cleared his throat a few times. "Probably. I, uh, maybe kept the schematics those old men drew up when they built Deathscythe's cloaking system. With a little help here and there from Une, I've been spending the last couple years figuring out how to get it to work on an irregular, non-gundanium surface."
Heero let out a low whistle, impressed to say the least. "So it's operational?"
Duo nodded. "It's not perfect, and it's got a bit of an overheating problem, so we need to cut speed to compensate and add another two hours onto that ETA. If you're right about that five hundred metres though, if we ran silent, we could slink in right under their noses."
"It's risky," Heero said. "What about your crew?"
"We've been in tighter spots," Duo said. "It just means they get more of the bonus I'm going to demand for risking my neck out here."
Sixteen hours proved just long enough to assemble all the gear they needed and agree on a game plan.
Whomever they had on the inside provided good intel. Primarily research based, mobile suits at the facility weren't a concern. Getting in, however...
"I can't believe we had to come in through the sewage," Duo said, dismayed. He juggled his gear, holding the important equipment above his head.
The entry point could've been worse. From the look and smell of things, all the reclamation units found on any good ship or station were in use and biological waste was at a minimum. They were hip-deep in runoff from cooling systems; the scrubbers too energy inefficient to filter water laden with heavy chemicals.
Somewhere behind them, a valve opened up, sending a roaring rush of a few thousand gallons into the mix. The water around them swayed as the current from the inflow caught up with them. Bits of debris floating on the surface caught the light from the lamps clipped to their vests.
Heero didn't like having to come in wet any more than Duo did. Limited access points made this decision the least risky. Ventilation systems were always well monitored, and you couldn't go around sneaking through ducts like you might dirtside. Here in outer space, air was as precious as --
"Very free with their water, aren't they?" Heero observed.
"Well, there's gotta be a few millions tons of it floating around this sector that's free for the taking," Duo said.
Though he should have, Heero hadn't considered the colony ruins. Of course scavengers wouldn't be interested in ice when pound for pound there were more valuable things to harvest in the debris field.
"A left and two rights and we should find ourselves at the sweet spot," Duo said.
Heero did another weapons check and took point, switching off his lamp as he neared the end of the last tunnel. The solid concrete of the ceiling gave way to heavy grates that allowed enough light to see by. He spotted a thick, waterproofed pipe running up the far wall.
"That baby should be our ticket in," Duo said, sloshing ahead and moving into position.
"How long will you need?"
"Not long," Duo said, amending that with a numerical value when Heero gave him a sharp look. He set to work immediately, placing a series of pinpoint charges to blow the insulated casing.
"Live," he warned, and Heero looked away, eyes closed as the white-hot chemical flare ate through the metal.
In minutes, Duo had hotwired them access through a maintenance chute twenty metres back.
Moving carefully to avoid cameras, they remained mostly undetected all the way to one of the control rooms. Getting past the stationed guards, however, would require lethal force. Duo reluctantly switched from a gun fitted with darts to a weapon with piercing rounds.
Inching towards the corner, Heero silently apologised for the necessity. He waited for Duo's signal, dropping low as Duo stayed high. All three guards went down before they knew what happened, and the second team that hurried out to investigate dropped just as swiftly.
Gun still at the ready, Heero crept towards the open door. A quick glance inside and a second more cautious sweep revealed no more opposition.
"Clear," he said, turning around to find Duo ripping the helmet off an armoured corpse.
He yanked away the helmets of another two guards and swore a curse before looking up at Heero.
"These are all women," he hissed.
"I'd noticed." The differences were subtle under the neutral shapes of the armour, but the signs were there.
"You know I don't like taking down women," Duo said, changing the clip on his gun. His mouth pressed tight at the corners. There'd been more than one reason he'd declined joining Preventer each time those vague inquiries had come their way.
"You know I don't like taking down anyone," Heero replied flatly. He pushed past Duo, dragging a desk chair out to sit down and slide himself in front of a computer. He swallowed down the sick feeling in his stomach and called up a terminal. The wave of names that scrolled by as the passcode matched to his ID sent his stomach lurching all over again.
The list only lent weight to his doubts that the Syndicate had been buying up slaves for more than the sex trade. It looked as if a good number of them had been brought here. Brainwashed, or something similar, if the body bleeding out by door was any indication.
He and Wufei had been on the case for more than a year. Girls taken for debts that were either their own or their parents. Some of them had voluntarily given themselves to brokers, expecting to work in teahouses not brothels. He could count on his hands the number successfully helped disappear without blowing his cover. And one of the ones he'd failed looked a whole lot like the girl at Duo's feet.
As he worked at disabling some of the security feeds and rerouting others, Heero shared his suspicions with Duo.
"Jesus," Duo breathed.
"I'm afraid that's not all," a strangely hollow voice behind them said.
Heero snatched up his gun up off the desk and trained it unerringly in the direction the voice had come from. The speaker stepped out of shadow.
"I am unarmed, and this vessel can be damaged, but destroying it will not harm me."
An android, smooth featured and slender-limbed, raised it's arms in surrender. It crumpled when Heero put a bullet in the precise centre of its chest. "Let's go," he said, but Duo pointed to where the android had come from.
"I don't think they're gonna let us," Duo said.
Another dozen pairs of eyes had flared to life, robotic bodies moving flawlessly together. They filed into the room, and beyond them stood at least fifty more, heads bowed and inanimate.
"Let's begin again, shall we?" the one in the forefront said.
"Who are you," Heero said brusquely, not liking the odds and refusing to play whatever game this was.
"Your primary objective."
The android took another step forward, pausing instantly when both Heero and Duo cocked their guns. Its head tipped down slightly in a gesture that could have been as much an apology as a greeting. The puppet master had to be damn close for the relays on the slave chips to react so quickly.
"Our objective --" Duo began.
"Your objective," it interrupted smoothly, shifting its weight in a very human fashion, "is a highly advanced program called Theta Drive."
Heero had spent a lot of time reading his opponents via nothing but the movement of their mobile suits. A near-expressionless being could reveal a lot more than a casual observer might think. The fluidity of the android's motions were unnatural any way he looked at it. These units couldn't be simple dolls. "The Theta Drive is an AI?"
"Not quite. Theta Drive deals with tactical outcomes as well as the manipulation of slave units," the android said. The additional units behind it deactivated, glow fading from their optical receptors. It stepped even closer, and Duo warned it to stay put. It raised its chin, almost as if amused. "For the moment though, you may think of me as one."
"How do we get you out of here?" Heero asked, ignoring the look Duo shot at him full of 'are you shitting me?'.
"I transferred the majority of myself onto that device in your ear the moment you stepped into this control room," it said. "You'll understand my processing is severely limited and the moment I pull out entirely, the breach in security cannot be concealed. Regardless, I can still monitor and regulate systems for a time and, as you can see, your proximity allows me to control more than one of, as my captors call them, Epsilon dolls."
"You can give me invisible and unfettered access to the security feeds?" Heero asked.
"Yes," it said, and a second later, a prompt blinked in the corner of the neural HUD. Heero raced through the systems, pinpointing the current location of their secondary objective and plotting the likeliest path to get there and out with minimum casualties. Triggering a send program, Heero had the route flashing on Duo's handheld.
"Memorise that," he said, and Duo studied it for a second before nodding. Heero turned to the android and pointed at the additional units. "And you, bring as many of those along with us as you can."
"Gladly, but if you don't mind," it said, "there's something I have been instructed to show you first."
They'd left their share of bodies behind making it to that first control room, but the AI had put a lockdown on all transmissions and no alarms had been tripped. With the ability to access all the security feeds, they were able to avoid further casualties as they moved towards what the facility's blueprints labelled a biomedical quarantine chamber.
The quarantine chamber turned out to be a storage room that held only a few pieces of discarded equipment. Too clean to be unused, everything about it screamed camouflage. Duo found the access panel cleverly hidden beneath a light switch.
The AI anticipated Heero's question. "I have no authority here," it said. "There are black spots in my sphere of influence. This area is on a separate system entirely."
"What's inside there?" Duo asked. He took a single step away from the near-invisible door and had a hand on his sidearm again.
"From what your associate has relayed to me," the android said, stepping up to the panel, "no human guards, but something which we will all agree is unpardonable." The extra Epsilon units held back in a semi-circle, their forearms raised with thin combat blades extended from elbow to wrist.
"After I open this door, I'm reasonably certain I can get access to the core system. The odds that I will be able to successfully hack in and simultaneously rewire the panel is only 36%. Do you think you can loop the feed as I rewire the panel? You'd have approximately 2.4 seconds."
Heero hadn't pushed the limits of the transmitter's neural software, or himself when it came to using it, but he nodded slowly. He stepped forward, and Duo stopped him.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Duo said, his hand vised on Heero's arm. He gestured at the door with his gun. "2.4 seconds? Heero, man, that's impossible."
The android lay a spidery hand on Duo's shoulder. "Nothing is impossible, Mr. Maxwell, merely improbable. Trust in your friend as I do."
Duo muttered a vicious curse, but his grip on Heero's arm eased up. "Don't fuck this up," he said. His hand slid away from Heero and he put his pistol back in its holster in favour of the SMG slung across his back. "I don't want to punch anyone else's ticket today."
As Duo went to stand with the Epsilons, doing as he always did by preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, Heero and the android tackled the system as one.
Those thin metal fingers punched in a lengthy code and immediately tore the panel free, rewiring the interior with inhuman speed and accuracy as Heero navigated a halo of code on something close to pure instinct. It felt like minutes instead of seconds, and he was certain he'd failed when he gasped out a faint, automatic, "Mission complete."
"Impressive, Zero One," the android said, and Heero blinked to find he'd finished first. "1.93 seconds. As usual, I underestimated you."
"I didn't even have time to shit my pants," Duo said. He switched back to his pistol as he walked over to Heero and put a supportive hand to his back. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Heero said. He was still reeling slightly, and something about the android really started to bother him. Had it referred to him as Zero One? He shook off the feeling, drawing his own weapon as the android informed them it would be opening the door.
The chamber beyond was at least six times the size that the blueprints claimed. Circular in design, it radiated out from a raised dais.
"Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
It took Heero a heartbeat to realise Duo wasn't talking about the body suspended in the cryo-unit at the very centre of that dais.
It was all beginning to click. From that nagging feeling that had plagued him since he shot that first Epsilon unit, to Une's choice in sending him and Duo specifically, to why they had a med-quality stasis unit disguised as a coffin in the Blackjack's hold. Une had known what they'd find here, and it sure as hell wasn't an injured operative.
"I didn't care to believe the girl at first, but there's no denying it now," the android said. "They plan not only to build an army, but to breed one." It came to stand beside them and its unblinking gaze swept around the cloning chamber.
"What are we going to do, we can't exactly destroy this place? They're just babies," Duo said. He trailed off, finally paying enough attention on the cryo-unit to recognise the scarred profile of the body inside. "Jesus fucking Christ."
The breathless curse kicked Heero into action; they were wasting valuable time. He holstered his gun and jogged over to the unit, checking to see if it could be moved. Soft, evenly paced footsteps followed him up.
"I apologise if you think I brought you here for this," Treize said, the cadence of his voice recognisable now in the flat tones of the android's vocal capacitor. "That they have my physical remains is as much of a surprise to me as it must be to you."
Duo jerked a thumb in the direction of the android's smooth metal chest. "Is that thing saying that it's...?"
"I'm afraid they retrieved more than just the ZERO system when they hacked into the remains of the Tallgeese II."
"Fuck me, how is that even possible?" Duo breathed. He swore again and tore his gaze away from the android. He started eyeing the cryo-unit, quickly coming to the same conclusion as Heero -- it hadn't been built to move. And even if the status panel readouts were green, they didn't know just how alive the body frozen inside actually was. "How the fuck are we going to get him out of there? Getting ourselves and our mystery girl out is going to be hard enough."
"My body was not part of the agreement."
Duo paused in the middle of trying to find a way to separate the unit from its base. "You want us to just leave you here? It here?"
Treize said nothing for a moment. "It's unnecessary."
"What do you mean unnecessary, it's still you, isn't it? I mean, all of you can't be in," Duo waved at the doll-like, android body, "that."
"This is not the time to debate the substance of the human soul, Mr. Maxwell, but if you'd like to philosophise at a later time...."
"Look, I'm just saying," Duo started, but Heero waved him to silence.
"We're taking all of you that there is," Heero said in a tone that would broach no compromise.
"Very well," Treize said, nodding as if he expected Heero to say nothing else. The rest of the Epsilon units crowded around. "Then it's only fitting that I should bear the burden myself."