Buried in Dust
Those rail-thin android bodies were stronger than they looked. It only took four of the six to carry the unit once Duo had found a way to detach it. Self-sufficient despite not being designed to move, like the cloning tanks, it had a built-in, renewable power supply.
"We can't go out the way we came in. We'd have to lose the shell, no question about it," Duo said. "That hatch was a tight fit just with our gear."
"We'll just have to press our luck and get the Blackjack close to a loading dock," Heero started calling up the feeds that would get them to one safely, but Treize stopped him.
"That won't be possible," Treize said. He pointed Heero towards a new batch of data and Heero cursed liberally.
"What's the problem?" Duo asked, looking between them.
"Unfortunately your ship has just turned tail and abandoned us."
"Did they come under fire?" Duo's brow furrowed and Heero could sense his frustration at not having easy access to the same information.
Heero shook his head and started taking stock of how much ammo he had left. "Your crew gave us up," he said.
"That's impossible," Duo scoffed, and he pointed a warning finger at Treize in case he planned to bring up the impossible versus improbable up again. "Why would they?"
"It doesn't matter at the moment," Heero said. "We need to find the girl and get out. The ship hit their scanners. They know we're here." He turned to Treize. "How much time do we have before they figure out someone's fucking with the system?"
"Approximately ten minutes."
"As I understand it, you can operate one of these dolls outside the range of the transmitter, correct?"
Heero nodded and turned to Duo. "We split up," he said, doing a quick scan and adding a new set of points to the map on Duo's handheld before disengaging from the software. He pulled the earring free and pressed it into Duo's hand. "You take this and go with them and the body, this one and I will find and collect the target. Head for the hangar located above rotational axis. As of now there are only two women stationed there. Find us a ship to steal."
Duo repeated the instructions back, pausing only to punch the earring through his earlobe. He finished and wiped a bit of blood off his fingers before checking his handheld one last time to be sure he had his bearings. "What's the cut-off time? I presume there is one."
Heero caught the front of his shirt, pulled him close and kissed him hard. "Fifteen minutes or the moment one of those units tells you we've failed."
Heero ran through the hallways at full tilt, relying on Treize's remaining connections to the security feeds to guide him.
"Location confirmed in the Nursery unit," Treize said, the artificial body keeping pace easily. "Level 6, Zone B. They're starting to manually black out the cameras in all areas, but I've calculated the point of resistance likeliest to result in the least casualties. Take the next corridor to the right. We'll hit guards fifty metres beyond where the hall begins to curve."
The opposition went down easily enough, and Heero witnessed first hand just how deep those blades on the Epsilon's forearms could cut. If they didn't get the Theta Drive out of here and the Syndicate not only had it working in those units, but put guns in the hands of children raised solely for the task.... Heero grit his teeth and focused on the mission at hand. Painted signs warned that they approached the next zone, and he slowed to move more cautiously.
"Describe the target to me," he said. They'd only had a name and an ID number.
Treize did a reasonable job, although he couldn't quantify anything concrete in terms of colour outside shades of light and dark. Pinning her as Caucasian nixed Meiling from the list in Heero's head. Even so, he guessed a simple asset didn't warrant retrieval.
"Do you know her role in the operation?"
"She was sent here to assist me," Treize said. "It's taken me nearly six years since I became self-aware to reconstruct the fragments of my self and manipulate their code to allow me the scraps of freedom I possess. I've been chipping at the walls of my prison with a spoon, so to speak."
They passed laboratory after laboratory and a darting glance through the small windows on the door proved one of them had unarmed people inside. Heero paused and fused the wiring, effectively locking them inside.
Treize continued as soon as they were moving again. "My capacity to act while working to conceal myself is not extensive," he explained. "They've known they had a ghost in the system almost since the beginning. Your girl has been thwarting them since Wufei sent her here. She'd write programs to 'eradicate' the Theta Drive's anomalies and I'd go quiescent for as long as I could."
"As long as you could?"
"Your agent can do a lot with her skills, but she's...only human. She can't navigate the core systems like I can. Wufei did what he could from his end, but no matter what, the task of intercepting faster than light transmissions for incoming deliveries and making them disappear isn't simple, Zero One."
"He was using you to help him divert shipments," Heero said. No matter how many times he'd said it, it still felt wrong to refer to groups of people as shipments or product. It felt wrong to be addressed by the old Alliance codename for him, too. "And my name is Heero."
"Very well," Treize said. One thin metal arm rose, asking Heero to pause, then with no further warning the unit went still.
The muscles in Heero's back struggled to tense up. He breathed deep to remain loose. Seconds ticked by painfully slow, and he wiped his brow with the back of his forearm.
"Mr. Maxwell encountered some resistance," Treize explained as his body came back to life. "However, we have secured the hangar and he's working to get one of the ships online."
He wanted to ask more, see if Treize knew when Une had figured out exactly what the Theta Drive contained, but even if they were nearing the eye of the storm, he couldn't spare any more time for interrogation.
The Nursery had nothing to do with the cloning chambers and everything to do with the Epsilon units. Code for prototypes filled every monitor screen and half-built models both new and old hung around the room.
Inside the lab, Heero discovered that he would've known the operative without a description or the convenience of the other technicians having already been sedated.
"Took you long enough," Mariemaia said, quickly untangling herself from a full-rig VR station. She scooped up a handheld not unlike Duo's from one of the stations and stepped over the bodies of her co-workers. "The spiders told me we've got six minutes until the boys in Black Team pick apart my safeguards and the whole place goes into lockdown mode like it's supposed to."
"Can we make it to Duo in time?" Heero asked.
"No sweat," Mariemaia said. "TD will you grab Sommers there?"
Treize nodded and scooped up the limp body of the man with the matching nametag.
"Now, follow me."
She led them to a utility elevator, hacking in with the handheld to get it to open despite the warning flashing above the doors. "This will get you to the right level," she said. She thrust the handheld at Heero. "Take that with you, it has data on it they're gonna need. That guy knows a lot, too. He'll be my decoy."
"Orders were to extract you," Heero said.
"You've got the body and m--" she stumbled briefly over her words, "the self-aware portion of Theta. If I go with you, we won't have anyone on the inside anymore." She tucked a bit of hair behind her ear and walked backwards away from the elevator. "Plus, someone has to stick around to make sure that ship your partner's got primed is the only one lifting off."
She looked like she wanted to say more, but Treize issued a quiet warning that they had four minutes left.
"Stay safe," Heero told her, and he saw her smile and nod before the doors slid shut.
The elevator started smoothly, and Heero took the opportunity to change the clip on his pistol.
"I am frequently struck with the notion that she looks like someone I once knew," Treize said.
It wasn't his place to tell Treize he had a child, but in case she didn't make it out when Preventer sent in a proper strike team, keeping silent didn't seem any more appropriate. Heero couldn't tell just how much access Treize had to anything outside of this place, and he wrestled with the idea of divulging all he knew, about Mariemaia and all that had happened in Treize's name. In the end, all Heero said was: "She resembles her mother, I hear."
Somehow, the Epsilon unit did a pretty good job of making a featureless face appear pensive.
"I thought we were evac'ing a girl?" Duo said. He twisted around in the cockpit seat, watching as Heero helped ease the body Treize carried into a seat. The hanger doors sealed shut and orange lights flared on in the airlock as the massive doors in front of them prepared to open.
"Operative is remaining of her own volition," Heero said. He strapped the technician's body in tightly, fishing out a pair of plastic zip restraints. In case the guy woke up anytime soon, Heero didn't want him moving.
"As soon as the doors are open we're clear then?"
Heero looked at Treize, who nodded.
As soon as those doors opened fully and the runway lights spit out into the black of space that stretched out before them, all but one Epsilon unit clattered to the floor. "Destroyed all I could and disconnected," it said, and the android looked down at itself. "I didn't think I'd be able to maintain control of even a single unit without the greater network. That's an impressive piece of hardware Mr. Maxwell is wearing."
"Clear?" Duo asked again. The engines whined, and his hand hovered over the controls.
"Clear," Heero confirmed, winding through the handful of passenger seats to join Duo in the cockpit. His step lurched as the launch track ejected them, and he strapped in the moment his ass hit the seat.
"That was close," Duo said, pointing to the monitor showing the hangar's launch sequence trying to abort. "Another couple seconds and we would've been stuck."
"You always did have the Devil's own luck," Heero said.
Duo breathed a bitter laugh as he punched in the pick-up coordinates. The set of his jaw said losing his ship might have hurt, but losing it to people he trusted drove the knife to the bone. Heero promised himself he'd be there when Duo felt like talking about it.
For the meantime though, he couldn't offer much more than a little space. Since they weren't pursued, he unclipped his harness and gave Duo a brief squeeze on the shoulder.
Treize had settled into one of the passenger seats. The android body sat there completely still, nothing indicating life, personality.
Only when he spoke did any of that shine through.
"You provided the information that had Une signing off on our initial investigation, didn't you," Heero said, pausing in the aisle and resting an elbow on the back of a seat.
"Selfishness. One's mind bent to serve another's purpose is a more appalling rape than anything you could imagine."
"The longer you stayed there, the deeper your influence over the system." Heero didn't need to imply any further. Treize would have had another army under his own control if he'd cared for it.
Treize turned his head to the window, lifting a hand to trace the edge of the face reflected back at him. "I thought to make a copy of myself in the beginning," he said. "A failsafe. Or at the least, a companion. Yet, and this is something Mr. Maxwell might care to debate with me later, I fought with the prospect that doing so was to play God. The more base questions were no less unsettling. Would it be an exact duplicate or flawed? Could I look at another with the full sum of my own experiences and still trust the same mistakes I'd made in the past would not be replayed?"
"In the end I met Zechs on the battlefield for peace, not glory," Treize said, looking back at Heero. "Nor was immortality something I ever sought. My name will fade from the history books. I don't care to be around to see it happen."
Duo's hug nearly squeezed the life out of Heero when they reached the rendezvous point. The Preventer ship that came to pick them up had the Blackjack's unmistakable silhouette anchored beneath her.
"They got my baby," Duo said relieved. He took the controls eagerly, and Heero twice had to caution him to slow down on approach.
But Duo's itch to check on his ship didn't dull his skills. As fast as he swooped in to dock, they didn't scrape hulls.
A pair of agents met them just inside the Preventer ship. Heero had been sure to brief them on their extra guests ahead of time and they didn't blink when Treize delivered the captured technician to be processed.
One of the agents found he had no choice but to fill in Duo on where they found the Blackjack. Heero took the other aside and gave her a more thorough verbal report and instructions for bringing aboard the cryo-unit. She nodded, unclipping the radio from her belt to relay Heero's orders.
"Preliminary debriefing in 202, sir," she said. "We're to escort both the target and the body directly to Winter."
Heero nodded. He found Duo satisfied with the news of his ship. Enough so that he sat through debriefing without looking like he wanted to chew through the wall and check on his baby first hand.
It was after, when they cornered Wufei in the hold that turned Duo springwound tight again.
"Can I do the honours?" he said
"Be my guest," Heero said, not sure he could hold back enough to leave Wufei's jaw in one piece. The heavy smack of Duo's fist doing the job turned out satisfying enough.
"I deserved that," Wufei said, wiping blood away from his lip with his fingertips. His tongue flicked out to lick away the rest.
"Damn right you did," Duo said hotly.
"I get no points for intercepting your ship and apprehending the woman who stole it then?"
"You get a few, but not enough," Duo said. He spun around to leave, but Wufei caught his elbow.
"I'll need that earring back," he said, and his eyes flickered to the nearby cryo-unit and the android standing patiently beside it.
"Right, here, take it," Duo pulled it free, wiping the post off on his shirt before handing it over.
"Thank you. Both of you," Wufei said quietly. He drew a pin from his shirt pocket and pushed the point of it into the tiny, pressure plate. Heero couldn't manufacture any regret at being rid of it a second time.
"Tell the Director I expect hazard pay on top of my bonus," Duo told Wufei. He clapped a hand down on Heero's shoulder. "You want a lift back to Earth?"
"Wait for me outside the airlock," Heero said. "I'll be there in a second."
Duo left, and neither of them spoke.
"You could have told me," Heero said finally.
Wufei's eyebrow arched delicately. He folded his hands together behind him and turned away. In the reflection of the viewport windows, Heero could still see his face. His eyes were closed. "Even though you were right?"
"Right about what?"
"I was... too attached from the beginning."
"What happened to her? Meiling?" Heero asked.
Wufei's mouth curved into a faint, rueful smile. "Two in the chest. Ordered by that weasel working for Hung. I would say it doesn't matter, she was neither the person I hoped nor the one I risked everything for, but a civilian is a civilian. I pray she's in a better place."
Heero nodded. His fingers slowly unclenched. "Now that you aren't dead, are we still on for hand-to-hand?"
That smile lingered and more of Heero's anger faded. "You tell me," Wufei said.
"I'm just looking for a reason to grind your face into the mat."
"Get out of here, Yuy."
At the door leading back to the docking bay, Heero turned to issue a proper farewell. He averted his eyes. Metal fingers combed the hair away from Wufei's face in a gesture intimate enough to make the back of his neck heat.
He never saw that coming. Too attached from the beginning, was it.
Heero shook his head and left without another word.
The Blackjack was waiting for Duo, and Duo was waiting for him.
"You patch things up with your partner?" Duo asked. He slouched against the wall with his hands stuffed in his pockets.
"As well as can be expected."
"Eh, even if he's a colossal dick, you guys are friends, you'll get over it if you want to."
Heero smirked and signed them out for departure. "I'm not sure I should."
"The next time you miss having company during one of those boring soccer games you like so much, you'll be saying otherwise."
"Probably," Heero said.
Duo slanted a smile and nodded towards the airlock. "Shall we?"
"Looks like I'm going to need to find a new sucker to do all the paperwork for me since Liz tried pulling a fast one," he said. "McKenzie and the other boys don't have the head for it." He chewed at his lower lip, tossing a backwards glance at the Preventer ship before they stepped over into the Blackjack.
"She'll be handed over to the nearest colony authorities."
"I know," Duo said, and stuffed a piece of gum in his mouth. He hit the controls to disengage from the other ship. "It's just a damn shame some people don't know what to do with second chances."
"That it is." Before Duo slipped out of reach, Heero caught him. He slid his arms around Duo's waist, held him tight, and asked, "If I keep in touch, will you give me another chance?"
Duo sank back against Heero's chest. "As many as you need," he said.