9. Tracking Causality
by Saro and Merellia
Heero snapped his toothbrush in half, broke the bottle of aftershave, and twisted the knob off
his closet door before he even finished packing. When he bent and then cracked the pull-tab to
his bag's zipper, he sat down beside it on the bed and stared at the warped
piece of metal on his palm. He tossed it
aside. The tab landed on the floor; he
heard it bounce once as he stared at the carpet in front of him. Slatted sunlight broke across its nubby
surface, casting it into an uneven tan landscape and spangling the dust-motes
drifting through the air with gold. They
hadn't yet bought a carpet cleaner: the dust would accumulate until they did.
Inefficient. Just because Duo was pissed didn't mean he
had to lose control of himself also. J
had had years more with him than G with Duo; he'd become accustomed to more
extensive interventions than an injection or two. That one was going wrong now -- if one were
going wrong: would J have even desired a tool to outlast its
purpose? -- shouldn't be a... surprise.
He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, a momentary refuge from the midmorning light in his
bedroom. He could hear Duo in the other,
angrily stabbing at his laptop's keyboard.
It sounded as though he'd stopped typing and was simply attacking the
keys with stiff-fingered prodding.
He was as certain as Duo that the scientists were involved somehow, but what had J done? Why had he
done it? What had he intended? Insufficient
data was the only answer that Heero had, and that wasn't an answer at
all. There was no purpose to this that
he could grasp, no way that this made him a better soldier. Civilian.
He paused, resting in the darkness of his closed eyes, and considered
the thought. All of his training, all of
the interventions, had been to make him a better soldier. But he wasn't one anymore; couldn't be, if
they were to have peace. Was that it?
Had he really overrun his course? He
inhaled slowly, the scent of soap and skin from his hands filtering through to
him. He didn't even smell like
himself. No cordite, nor the machine oil
he used in Wing, nor even the pervasive tang of Gundam hydraulics fluid. His breath hitched as a wrench of queasiness
twisted in his gut.
No. Fingers curled into fists; he
forced his heartbeat and breathing into a smooth rhythm, ignoring the chill
that wanted to creep along his skin.
This served no purpose. One
couldn't make decisions at this point; one could only plan, and who knew if Duo
had gotten farther than leave and get to G. Dropping his hands, he stood, took the
haversack, and left the room.
Duo's faded black
duffel bag sat in the middle of the floor where the futon would be laid out in
the evenings; he himself sat in front of the battered table that served them
both as a computer desk, his laptop showing a cascade of windows and lines of
text too small for Heero to read from the doorway. Without turning around, Duo said tersely,
"1500 credits is the cheapest I can get for here to L2
for us both, leaving today. One way."
Heero thought of the
narrowness of the distance between commercial shuttle seats, the way that
Odin's knees had poked into the aisles when the man had tried to fit himself
into their confines. First-time flyers
sick from the inner-ear imbalance of zero G.
Tourists. Layovers. Lost luggage.
He eyed the gun tossed next to the duffel on the floor, and an all-too
familiar pouch next to it. Port
"Fuck! How do you
expect me -- you got any idea what chartering -- " Duo cut himself off
mid-rant. "I'll charge it to one of the
asshole's accounts," he announced. Heero
could clearly picture the tight-lipped smile and narrowed eyes that accompanied
the satisfied tone. He'd seen the
expression more than once on Wing's com screens. Duo flexed his fingers and began typing
again, leaning towards the laptop in his intensity as a sheaf of windows
collapsed and others opened in their wake.
"Check to see if the
account's still open," Duo muttered.
Heero decided it was the beginning of Duo's self-narrating monologue,
and tuned him out. Picking up a few
twist-ties from the top of the dresser by the door, he sat down next to the
duffel on the floor, tucking his feet under in seiza,
and began to braid the ties. He hadn't
yet asked why all the twist-ties from their garbage bags and bread bags ended
up in Duo's room; maybe they were intended as emergency hair ties.
He threaded the
braided wire through the zipper loop on his knapsack, bringing the ends
together and twisting them around each other.
A tug -- firm, but more cautious than his previous pulling of it had
been -- made sure that the improvised tab would hold. The white and orange paper wrappers around
the wires already looked dingy and worn from the handling, but the purpose
would be served despite their appearance, which was all that mattered.
Setting the knapsack
aside, he took up Duo's gun, ejecting the clip and giving the gun a swift
once-over to verify its condition. He
didn't expect to find anything amiss -- its matte finish identified it as the 9mm
Duo kept under his pillow, so would be in perfect shape -- but nothing was hurt
by the activity.
The heft of the
metal, the snick and clicks of pieces sliding in and out of place, the familiar
routine of the check relaxed Heero as nothing else had since Wing Zero's
detonation had removed its more extensive inspection needs from his
routine. He'd always meant to fix Wing's
alternator master toggle; it liked to stick in more humid weather. Had he taken that switch panel off entirely,
he could have rewired the alternator controls to eke a little more output from
them... He sighed, tension fading from his shoulders. If he closed his eyes, he could picture every
light, display screen, switch, and indicator on the avionics stack. A little warmth crept through him at the
"Yes!" Duo's triumphant whisper cut through Heero's
small slice of quiet; his hands tightened involuntarily around the gun before
he caught himself and consciously relaxed his grip, thumbing the safety and
setting the Beretta aside. "Bastard's
still using the account, and the pretty baby is full, full, full. Plenty for
us." Duo's vicious delight quieted into
a few more taps on the keyboard.
Heero eyed the pouch
next to the duffel; it was obviously full, judging from its rounded sides. "Duo."
"Bet it's stuff I
transferred to him from OZ to begin with, so it's sort of... mine
already. I'm just repossessing it.
Yeah," muttered Duo. Turning to look up
at him, Heero saw Duo's fingers twitch over the keys. "Heero... " His tone was speculative, halfway to
"No." He spoke over Duo's sigh, "Why the
Duo completed a transfer and closed the connection. His reply, when it came, was casual,
absent-sounding as he opened up a new series of windows. "Never know what you might need on L2." But the pause, as naturally arranged as it
seemed, caught Heero's attention. Duo
didn't need to concentrate that much on a hacking job of this caliber; he could
manipulate silence like it was a cloaking device.
"Shit, do you really need to ask? The fucking bastard -- addicted to some drug," Duo spat, slapping his hands down on the tabletop. Anger seethed from him, jaw and shoulders
and fists wound tight as he spun in the chair to pin Heero with a furious
Despite their proximity, despite the similarity of whatever it was happening to them, Heero
abruptly felt every inch of the distance between them and more. He wouldn't have -- couldn't have -- loaded that
single word with as many nuances as Duo packed into it. Half of them he couldn't even identify. He couldn't guess what Duo was thinking, or
was likely to do, and they didn't have the time to ask. He looked down at the pack of explosives, the
gun: familiar tools, from a familiar time, familiar interactions. "I -- " he started, stopped, and tried again.
"What's the -- mission?"
"The mission," Duo said with scathing
disbelief, then shut his eyes tightly before he could see Heero's flinch. He inclined forward the slightest of degrees,
fists resting on his thighs. Whether the
movement was from tension or apology, Heero couldn't tell. "No. Sorry."
He inhaled slowly; Heero counted fifteen before Duo blew his breath out
in a measured release, lifting his eyelids.
His gaze was steadier as he returned the look Heero gave him. "Have to talk to him first," he said at last,
Heero frowned. Duo considered that a plan? "Too imprecise. How are we going to get there? What are we
going to do before that? Do you know
anything about the area he's in? What security does he maintain?" What kind of assignments had Duo's scientist
been giving him? He should know better just by the models they had provided.
"You're the one who
wants a plan, you decide," Duo
retorted, brows lowering.
The one time they'd
stayed together in the boarding school, they'd been given the same
assignment. But Duo had spent time after
that finding schematics for the base and the destroyer which had been their
target; his mission details, unlike Heero's, must not have included specifics
of attack route or timing, or else the schematics would not have been
needed. He thought back to the
conversations he'd heard between G and Duo.
G had seemed almost as casual about things as his housemate. There'd been only "get to L2," and nothing
about how or when or where.
Heero moved the pack
of explosives, putting it down beside the Beretta. Maybe Duo needed to learn
about planning missions. "You know L2.
You know G," he said, and kept quiet until he knew the silence would be gnawing
at Duo, unzipping the black duffel. He
put the dark gray pouch inside. The
hardness of a sock-covered weight announced the presence of Duo's handheld
inside already, but nothing else met Heero's grasp; Duo hadn't even packed
before he'd charged ahead into checking on shuttle flights.
"Fine," Duo snapped.
"Back up, then. Obtain a shuttle, head
to L2, call him and get his location.
Secure the shuttle. Scout -- ?" At Heero's nod, he continued. "Scout the
area. Meet him and interrogate the bastard.
Then decide." Sourly, he
finished, "That suit you?"
"It will do," Heero
said, rocking back onto his feet and standing up smoothly, the black duffel in
his hand. A flicker of confidence chased
away the last of the chill on his skin.
They had a mission. Objectives.
Roles. He looked down at Duo, who
stared at him with pinched brows and a jutting chin. It wasn't his housemate or lover or co-worker
whom Heero saw; it was his occasional partner, and a fellow pilot. "I'll get your gear together while you finish
arranging the other."
When he spoke again,
Duo's voice was brisk, professional, the edge of irritation gone. "Right," Duo said, acknowledging the
offer. With the push of a toe, he swiveled
his chair around to face the laptop again.
When Wufei didn't
see Durstang at his desk as soon as he arrived, he headed straight for his own
and set the small sword-plant down atop it.
He'd picked it up at the corner market near his apartment, thinking that
could use the cheerfulness of greenery; but completing his first assignment as
an agent, even if partnered to a woman, struck him as something deserving
commemoration. So he'd reassigned the
plant to permanent desk duty. Better it than I, he thought with a
sudden twist into humor.
The vibration made
by the weight of the pot as he put it down jostled the sensitive computer out
of standby; with a flicker, his monitor warmed into color, password entry
window blinking. A moment's consideration
had him moving the plant to the left side of the monitor instead, tucking it
back beside the cheerful red of Sally's card with its calligraphed message of
good health for the Chinese New Year, only a few weeks past. The veined shades of dark and light green
contrasted well with the scarlet, white, and black of the card, he decided, and
sat down, satisfied.
Durstang. Not even the deliberately
noisy scraping Wufei elicited from his chair as he pulled it closer to the desk
brought the older man out of hiding, though it drew a creak as Noin leaned back
in her own seat to check out the interruption.
"Morning, Chang," she said briefly, before turning back to her own
The buzz of activity
at Wufei's back, where the analysts worked, seemed scarcely diminished from its
weekday levels, though the other side of the room, with its unfilled desks and
agents' stations the quiet seemed to demand attention. It was Maxwell whom he'd
been called in to replace, but the lack of greeting from the occupant of the
other desk on the far side of the partition in front of him suggested that Yuy,
too, was absent. Wufei debated whether
to bother asking the woman or not only for a moment. His curiosity won. "Yuy?"
Noin leaned back
again and Wufei tried to interpret the expression on her face. She was hard to read -- all foreigners were,
really, with their too-colorful eyes and hair and pale skin to distract from
the subtle nuances of expression. Even
Sally, Chinese as she was, fell into that category for all that they'd spoken
Mandarin almost exclusively during the past week's assignment. "Out," Noin said.
Wufei gave a grunt
of acknowledgement as he turned to his own computer. He shouldn't have expected more detail from
her, but he frowned nevertheless. One brief
message from the Director left while he had been occupied in the shower had
informed him only that he was called in to partner with Durstang in Maxwell's
stead this coming week, and should present himself this morning to begin
briefing for the assignment; but that Yuy was gone as well... He called up
the meeting software; it had already been updated to reflect his absence with
Durstang in the week coming. Yuy and
Maxwell were likewise flagged as out of town, but no other agents were, not
even Noin who should have been with Yuy as his mentor.
Another one of the
frivolously colored rectangles on the schedule grid caught his attention. His frown deepened. Sally
had been rescheduled for office presence today, too? He took a moment to listen, stretching for
the sound of activity from her desk; without Nicolov
or Maxwell intervening, he should be able to hear her at work; he wouldn't
demean himself by doing something so obvious as going to the break room -- he
didn't drink coffee, anyway -- or standing up to look over the intervening
partitions, if he even could; he was scarcely taller than they. Sometimes discretion had benefits. But he heard nothing over the background of
the others in the office, not even the faint click of a keyboard.
window, he glared at beige cloth of the cubicle surface, then checked his
messages. His filters had flagged and
opened the morning's world events synopsis mailed by Ngebe,
the most senior of the analysts, but none of its headlines looked like they
would have warranted the sudden attention of two ex-Gundam pilots, let alone
two Preventers agents who were scarcely more than raw recruits.
Maybe they'd sent
him a message. They would have known to keep him informed of what involved
him. He closed the events mail and
clicked on his in-box, scanning down the list of senders. There were a couple from Nicolov
which he could safely ignore without opening; the man seemed to take an
unhealthy delight in mailing odd and intrusive questions at any opportunity. These
were only more of the same, and reading or replying to them would only
Martje had sent a message about supplies; he could
ignore that for now... The name below hers caught his eye then, pulled him
in and made the space between his shoulders itch as if sighted in the
crosshairs of a gun. He let his eyes
follow the pixelated characters, the familiar
side-by-side with the strange. Chang Lin-hui. The subject line was blank.
He clicked on it,
his irritation and incipient concern gone under the wash of apprehension which
swept through him. Esteemed nephew, greetings and blessings upon your New Year... He skipped to the end of the mail and took in the lineage block she'd attached
as a signature file. Not aunt;
great-aunt. Honored Grandfather's sister who had married off-colony, into the
Su clan of A01832. Circumstances might
have made him the heir, but even living in another family she was still an
elder of his own.
His eyes jumped back
to the message text, skimming through the first paragraph where she set out
their relationship, and the second in which she discussed the history of her
efforts on behalf of their family. The
third -- he hadn't even read the first half-line before the characters for visit and marriage jumped out at him like Tauruses
from an ambush.
No, he said against the disquiet that curled in his belly. I chose
this. I won't lose this time.
Durstang said, draping his arms over the side of Wufei's cubicle.
Every nerve within
him leaped to fling him from his chair in shock, but he prided himself on the
control that had him doing no more than coolly flicking his gaze to the older
man. He closed the message window. Even if Durstang wasn't literate in Chinese,
if he were a newtype, that might be enough for him to
read material better kept private. Wufei'd rather be hauled into court on charges of war
crimes than -- He stopped that train of thought. "Maxwell?" he asked in sharp
mouth turned down at the corners, his brow furrowing a moment before it
cleared. "Good morning to you, too,
Chang," he said, and waited until Wufei murmured a greeting. He tried not to
sound resentful in giving it. "Why
don't we move into the conference room.
I've already laid out the facility blueprints there. We can get right onto the briefing."
Wufei nodded, keyed
in the command to lock his terminal, blanked its screen in standby, then pulled a pad of paper and a pen from one of his
drawers. Rising, he followed the more
senior agent towards the corner room with its long table.
Durstang didn't say
anything else until he'd closed the conference door behind them. The morning's bright sunlight spilled through
the polarized glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows and across the table and
its burden of blueprints. "The Director
said that Heero and Duo are on a private assignment. She expects them back in a couple of
days -- not that it helps with this," he said, fingers tapping the schematics as
he moved around the table. "She called
me in to talk to her just as Sally was leaving."
Sally again. And a private
assignment? What did that mean? The Preventers were a government
organization, not a company-for-hire.
Private for whom, then? Maxwell
and Yuy? But if Sally were involved,
too -- Wufei realized Durstang had been
looking at him intently. "I knew nothing
of this," he said stiffly, not sure even as he spoke whether the words were
accusation or defense.
"Ah. Since Sally partnered you most recently, and
you Gundam pilots seem to stick together, I thought you might," Durstang said
with an easiness that Wufei envied. He
pulled out one of the tall, overly padded chairs and sat down. "I guess we can just be in the dark together. Shall we get started?"
"Yes," Wufei said
curtly, taking his own seat. A flame of
irritation lit within him once more.
They hadn't always worked collaboratively, but this time Wufei had been
called in to substitute for Maxwell.
Whatever the L2 pilot had involved himself in,
he'd involved Wufei too, and should have had the courtesy to give some sort of explanation.
Opening an envelope,
Durstang removed a series of photographs and passed them to Wufei. They were satellite images, magnified and
enhanced until the individual details of buildings and vehicles were available. "These came to our attention at the beginning
of the week. Word from the ambassadors
involved is that a splinter group in Karamoja has
revived an old quasi-political banner and is stockpiling arms as the Lord's
Karamoja -- the word rang in his memory, pulled his
gaze from the photographs to look at Durstang.
He'd been to Uganda once, on the way to attacking the Lake Victoria
base. The northern region had lots of savanna,
a few scrubby trees. He had avoided it
as lacking any possible cover for a Gundam.
Then he thought through the rest of what the other man had said. "The Lord's Resistance Army?"
With a grimace
twisting his mouth, Durstang said, "That's partly why the ambassadors asked for
our intervention. It's a Ugandan
district right now, but word is the group's rhetoric identifies targets across
the border in Sudan. Uganda and the Sudan usually have a fight and swap control
over Karamoja every couple of decades. They're trying to prevent that sort of
escalation now. But the group soliciting
members -- and donations -- from both countries.
So we've been told. They've not been able to prove any of this; they're
going on rumors, a couple odd financial transactions, and suspicions drawn from
sat images like these. The main focus of the group's issues seem to be some recent laws
passed broadening the number of religious groups recognized by Sudan."
Wufei snorted. "They
don't care for the competition?" A
whisper of air brushed his forehead as the room's ventilation system responded
to the light's warmth.
recognition comes with financial support... so perhaps." Durstang waved a hand at the blueprints.
"What we've got here are sat images of their compound. We have offers of support from both
countries, either local law enforcement or through the ESUN."
"The former means
personal connections between them and the group, I presume. The second -- "
"No, neither country
is pleased by the expense or the publicity they'd get from that. Duo," Durstang paused, shuffled a building blueprint
to the top, and continued, "suggested that we go in and see if we could get the
documentation necessary to allow for local prosecution of the ringleaders. He
said he wouldn't be able to recognize the materials, but since I could, he
could bring me in with him. I'd handle
that while he set the magazine to blow on our way out. Local LE would pick up
the ringleaders. We'd set up with them
for that -- we were just waiting for arrival on site to iron out some of the
Staring at the
blueprint, its lines clear in the shadow cast over them by Durstang, Wufei said
sharply, "We're not interchangeable. I
can't get you in like that, and I'm not an explosives expert."
Durstang raised his
eyebrows, studying Wufei with a mild look that made him think of Master O. Then the expression passed, and the other
agent just gave him a grin. "Well, there goes my theory that you had overlap in
weapons training, some strategy and tactics," Wufei offered grudgingly, feeling
like he'd been reproved as Master O had done in the past, chiding by virtue of
not responding to an error or rudeness.
He didn't offer more, though; only if he judged it relevant would he
share more with Durstang. Otherwise it was no-one's business but
Durstang rested his
chin on a hand, cupping that elbow with his other hand as he leaned back in the
seat with the wheeze of thickly-padded upholstery, and studied Wufei. "You
weren't taught to fight as a group?"
"We never met until we came to Earth, and didn't
start to work together until later," Wufei said, holding back a scowl as a few
other things occurred to him. They might
not have met, but they'd all been trained by scientists who had -- and who knew
what they had arranged beforehand? He
and the others might as well have been pawns in the hands of chessmasters.
Durstang gave a
bemused, "Huh. Didn't expect that. So, since you can't do what we'd planned, do
you have any suggestions? I'd like to
salvage the arrangements with local LE if we can," he added, with a sudden
chuckle that surprised Wufei. "No sense in letting them know that the Preventers have a
screw-up on their hands."
Damn you, Maxwell, why did you do this? Wufei swore silently, spreading the satellite
images out between himself and Durstang.
The other man silently handed him some profile sheets: presumably the
ringleaders. A pat of his breast pocket, then his pants proved his reading
glasses were not present. Damn it, he swore again. Need to
get a pair to leave here in the office.
He bent closer to the documents to study them more intently.
They tossed ideas
back and forth until noon, when Durstang declared a break for lunch. Wufei declined the man's invitation to
accompany him, using the profiles as the excuse -- he could use the break to
catch up on some of the reading.
But after allowing
five minutes to pass, he stepped out and ducked into the adjacent
communications room, where a bank of screens showing newscasts from around the
Sphere took up an entire wall, where there were vid
units and privacy.
He took a seat in
front of one of those, setting his irritation aside and mentally composing a
brief message to send to Maxwell's number.
His good intentions lasted until, to his surprise, Maxwell actually
answered the call in person. "What the
hell," Wufei blurted, taking in the background past Maxwell's shoulders, "are
you doing in the spaceport?"
eyebrows raising. He was wearing
sunglasses again -- a rather underhanded trick to use when talking to another, in
Wufei's opinion. "Thought it was Sally,
maybe, or -- it's Wufei," he said, looking up past the hand-held to speak to
someone nearby. He lowered his gaze to
the screen once more. "Hi, Wufei."
Heat spiked through
Wufei in the face of the other's nonchalance as he made the obvious connection
between Maxwell's addressee and the absent Yuy.
"You're leaving Earth. Why are you leaving Earth, Maxwell?"
Wufei watched as
Maxwell tried to muster a grin. "You feeling okay, buddy? No need to get in
such a twist. We'll just be gone a couple days."
"I'm not the one
getting people called off downtime to cover their place on assignments," Wufei
snapped, and had the satisfaction of seeing Maxwell flinch. "What are you doing? Why couldn't it wait
until you returned with Durstang? What is going on?"
The only foreigners
whose expressions Wufei could read with any reliability were the other pilots;
several shared hours in prison had made Maxwell the easiest of them all. But the damn glasses made that impossible. Maxwell said shortly, the typical breeziness
gone from his tone, "It's complicated. We're not sure yet. Wufei, could I -- could you let it rest until
we're back? I'll explain then. Promise."
Wufei said nothing
as he continued to look at Maxwell, whose mouth thinned unhappily as the
silence stretched between them. It was
serious, whatever was sending them off-planet, Wufei acknowledged. It wasn't something as clear-cut as an
assignment, or a battle; even those you could go into in poor shape and the
adrenaline would take your concerns and fears and angers and turn them into
excitement, however tense. There wasn't
a shred of such on Maxwell's face as he waited patiently for Wufei's
response. "Fine," he said shortly.
Maxwell didn't even
smile his relief. "Thanks, man. Owe you
one. Things okay between you and
there," Wufei said, wanting to close his eyes in exasperation when he saw the
ghosting of a familiar pressure against the other pilot's black jacket when the
other shifted, and grinned in a way obviously meant to irritate. He wasn't wearing the Preventers jacket, so
he couldn't even be said to be in uniform.
"Maxwell, please tell me you have your concealed carry permits on you."
"Not on me," Maxwell said, leaving Wufei
biting his tongue to keep from rising to the bait. "Oops, look at the time, Wufei, so sorry, got
to go." He didn't even bother to glance
away from the screen to check an imaginary clock. "Be well," he finished, the brief flash of
humor fading even as he disconnected the call.
Wufei stared at the
blank screen, mulling the call over and trying not to feel more irate than he
had going into it. Something was not
only going on; something was wrong. He played back his memory of the call,
and -- Sally. Maxwell had thought Sally
might be calling; Sally had been with the Director before Durstang, too.
Calmly, he punched a
shortcut code into the vid unit.
The main hall
guard's face blinked onto the screen after a moment. Their identification cards were
electronically chipped, traceable; the guard covered that as part of his
security detail. "Has Agent Po left
yet?" Wufei asked. Getting the guard's
negation after he checked his computer records, Wufei thanked him and sat back
for a few minutes, then stood, checking the time on his watch. He still had half an hour before Durstang was
due back: time and plenty to see about finding Sally, ask her a few questions,
and read a couple of the profiles.
With it opposite the
conference room, he saw at once that her desk was empty. Next door to him, the Director's office
stood, door closed and the glass panels to either side dark. So Sally wasn't there, either, and the
Director had gone to wherever her home was.
He'd heard she had Mariemaia living with her
now. The copy room -- he ducked around a
row of empty cubicles, giving it an eye as he pretended a need to visit his
desk. Noin was gone from hers, too. That added another possibility: both women
might be at lunch on the twelfth floor, which served as a cafeteria. Or the bathroom, for that matter. But he'd check the infirmary, first.
He found her there
at the desk, quiet in a thin white coat as she stared at something on the
screen she faced. When he knocked on the open door, he saw the flicker from the
screen shift across her eyes as her glance jumped up to him. "Wufei," she said
after a moment's hesitation. A smile of
greeting followed before she leaned back and gave him a quick head-to-toe
glance. "Not feeling sick, are you?"
He snorted at the
ridiculousness of the thought, and took a few steps into the room towards her
desk. Casually, in the gesture of a rote
attempt to tidy things, she picked up the open folder in front of her and
closed it, then tapped it and the folders and papers stacked beneath it into a
neat pile. But the move had also
obscured from his sight the name written on the folders, or on any of the other
documents at which she'd been looking.
She caught him watching her, and knew that she knew he had figured out
what she was doing; but she said nothing.
She was going to make him ask, he thought crossly, but asked
regardless. "What's going on with Yuy
Sally didn't bother
to deny the inquiry; it was one of the things he liked about her, when he had
to consider that. He appreciated her
directness. "I can't tell you."
"Can't, or won't?"
she said, blue eyes resting evenly on his face as she looked up at him.
He caught the
implications as she had meant him to, and stood there for a minute, considering
his options. She wouldn't tell him more,
but whatever was going on was medically related. Confidentiality wouldn't be an issue
otherwise: instead, she would have refused to disclose details on the grounds
of their being classified. "Ah," he
remarked noncommittally, then added, "Thank you," before returning to the
elevator, the Preventers' floor, and the conference room. He needed to consider this some more; he
still didn't have an answer he liked.
Going off-planet for health reasons?
The only medical treatment the colonies excelled in was limb
replacement, and neither Maxwell nor Yuy were in need of that.
He needed to let the
information settle for a while before he could come up with a decision about
what to do next. There were still had a
good twenty minutes before Durstang was due back, so he set those thoughts
aside and sat down and pilfered a fruit bar from the break room to eat while he
did some of the reading that he'd suggested was his purpose in declining to eat
with the other Preventer.
These Lord's Resistance
people were not going to climb high on his list of respected opponents. Hoping to evade retribution by basing oneself
across international borders in a world still jumpy and nervous about war
seemed more likely to draw attention rather than defuse it, to Wufei's
mind. But, he conceded reluctantly, if
your goals were strong enough, sometimes risks could seem minimal in exchange
for achieving them. He was more than
familiar with that mindset, even if religion seemed an odd choice for
bloodshed. That thought immediately called to mind three instances of China
exiling clans and one entire city to L5 colonies for their religious
persuasions or stances on the country's treatment of religious
freedom -- including that truly odd incident in AC 53 -- so it was certainly not
He heard Noin return
first, exchanging greetings with Martje after she
stepped out of the elevator. Then Sally
came, but only stopped by her desk briefly before leaving again; he imagined
that she went home this time. A few
analysts passed in and out, mostly in groups.
Last was Durstang.
They wrangled over
possible plans for another four hours before calling it off for the evening,
and it took another agonizingly slow half-hour before Durstang left. Then there was only Wufei and Nicolov, who had arrived for an evening shift, left. After a winking grin and some brief chat,
which practice with Maxwell made it easy to ignore, Nicolov
moved to his own desk and his own business, leaving Wufei free to pursue his
Wufei'd had an idea, in between the debate over how
to approach the Lord's Resistance situation and not make it obvious that the
Preventers had experienced a sudden and unexpected change of plans. Lacking knowledge was the worst position a
person could ever be in; without knowledge, you were powerless even to assess
your situation fully and rationally. He
didn't have the knowledge necessary to judge his current situation. Waiting until Maxwell returned to redeem his
promise was a possibility, but it was now
that Wufei had been called upon to substitute for him. Wufei had a right to know how long these
circumstances might persist.
He was light-years from being the hacker Yuy was, nor was he
close to Barton's or Maxwell's levels, but when he was already connected to the
network, his little experience wasn't so great a hindrance. It was one of the other aspects of their
training which he suspected they all shared, though he had never heard Winner
speak of a hacking job. But Winner
rarely discussed the details of his business if he could avoid it without
giving offense, so that was not surprising.
A check showed that
no logging software targeted the networked machines; there was such a security
program running, but it recorded only the actions taken through remote
connections. It took fewer than a
half-dozen minutes to locate the ops password file.
He only needed two
more before he found Sally's folder system for medical documents.
opened them; he started scanning Yuy's first. A lot of the data he could skip, as it
referenced nothing but the typical details of physical status. His reading slowed as he came to an extensive
paragraph detailing results from some soft-tissue scans, and resulting
commentary. Psychotropic dependence. Neuroadaptation. The
words stood out, clearings in the thicket of abbreviations and jargon.
Wufei let his breath
out in a slow hiss, and checked Mawell's
records. It was the same. An addendum had been added under today's date
on Maxwell's record alone: a notation of symptoms, a reference to G.
No wonder Maxwell
had looked so subdued -- and under that, ill at ease. How could he not, with his body betraying
No wonder they were
leaving the planet. They had to be going
to the source. Sources.
Perhaps Wufei's ancestors
looked upon him more kindly than he had believed. Soberly, he closed the files and spent the
necessary time to ensure that there he had left no traces on his computer or
the others to indicate that the files had been accessed.
He was going to have
to think about this.
* ~ * ~ *
Heero sat down in a hard plastic spaceport chair, one chair
removed from where Duo was baiting Wufei.
His partner shot a grin at the miniature vidscreen
of his portable -- not a happy expression, but a cynical, semi-automatic smile -- before
firmly thumbing the end button. "We're gonna owe him a hell of an explanation when we get back,"
he said as he put the portable away, then added wryly "You'd think he didn't like good ol' Chas or something."
Heero made a noise to show he'd heard. "Sally implied that Wufei wasn't exhibiting
"Y'know, Heero," Duo said with a
sideways look, "if you're suggestin' we don't tell
Wufei about this, then I'm willin' to listen to what
you have planned, but I don't think he's likely to let this go."
"No," the Wing pilot returned, blinking. He studied Duo's profile, and finding that
blank behind the dark aviator sunglasses he wore, his body language. Bony shoulders rolled forward, arms crossed
over his chest, chin down and thin, flexible mouth twitching up at the
corners. It was a familiar posture, and
one which normally meant Duo was waiting for something. "I was only observing that it's quite
possible that whatever is wrong with us, Wufei is not sharing our affliction."
"Aha." It was a bare
acknowledgement, then the sidestep. "So
what's the word on the shuttle?"
Heero didn't miss the quick change of subject, but he
decided he could ignore it for the moment.
"Twenty minute wait -- they're still fueling."
"It would have been longer if we'd taken the commercial
flight," the Wing pilot pointed out, eyeing his companion. If he hadn't seen Duo perform under more
pressure than this, he might have suspected the other was in danger of behaving
irrationally during the course of their mission.
"Yeah, but that was within budget." He fired off another smile, this time Heero's
direction. "But no worries on that, I
suppose, since the bastard is footing the bill."
Weighing his options carefully, Heero said, "My question?"
Duo turned toward him, his eyes barely visible behind the
unyielding dark lenses of his sunglasses; his brows drew down in a crooked
frown. "What the fuck are you talking
"Our contract," Heero explained. "It's my turn to ask a question."
Duo reached up and slid the glasses down his nose with his
middle finger, blue eyes fixing Heero above the frames. "Our contract? You mean that question for a question deal?"
"Yes," he agreed, matching Duo's look. "I wanted to know -- "
"It's not a fucking contract, Yuy," the long-haired
pilot interrupted, stressing Heero's last name until it sounded like an
epithet. "It was a stupid bargain that
we made over breakfast. It's not -- it's... " He trailed off, clenching his
teeth so hard a muscle in his cheek jumped with the effort. "Listen Heero, I am trying real hard
to deal with your bullshit right now. If
you'd try to act human for the half a goddamn hour or so, it would really
Heero's throat went dry.
"Behave like a human? You mean
fly off the handle and snap every five second?"
"You're in no position to bitch about me being a little
fucking edgy," Duo shot back, his chin dropping dangerously. "You're the one who freaked about me taking
my own time at the fucking video store.
At least I have a good reason to be upset."
"A good reason?"
Heero's eyebrows arched, and he actually chuckled at that. "You're upset that Professor G altered you
somehow. Frankly, I'm amazed you didn't
assume as much already."
"And you're not upset?"
"I didn't say that; what I am not is surprised." Heero shut his teeth on what he was about to
say. Duo seemed to be operating under
the mistaken impression that he was guaranteed some level of somatic integrity. That had not been in his agreement with
J. A low, angry burn warmed Heero's
system, and his hands twitched. The
familiar pressure of a gun against the small of his back was strangely
"Fuck off," Duo snapped, turning away. "I don't want to have this fucking fight
"You've wanted this 'fucking' fight since you found out,"
Heero observed stonily. "Don't take it
out on me because Sally ruined your fantasy about the nice man who gave you a
weapon of mass destruction."
"What part of 'fuck off' didn't you get?" There was a
familiar growl in the other's voice.
Normally that tone had been reserved for the Alliance or OZ; apparently,
failing a mortal enemy, Heero would do.
"Are you just trying to -- "
Duo broke off, turning toward the main corridor. Heero followed his gaze and felt his face
heat as he realized that they had an audience.
Swallowing hard, the Deathscythe pilot
suggested, "Think maybe we could move this somewhere a tad less public?"
Standing up stiffly, Heero grabbed his bag and stalked
away. He heard the shuffle of fabric
behind him as Duo followed after. Not
sure where to go, Heero walked in the direction of the charter launch towers,
away from the busier commercial gates.
The banked anger continued to spark, looking for something to
catch. His mind went back over their
brief altercation, realizing belatedly that he'd let himself be distracted.
He had a question, and they had a contract. Only, Duo didn't see it that way.
Satisfied that they were well enough removed from the normal
flows of traffic, Heero stopped, dropped his luggage, and faced his
partner. Duo pulled up short, surprised,
Milky light flooded the hall they were in through a bank of floor to
ceiling windows, and nearly half of Duo's face indecipherable behind the shield
of his glasses.
"So we don't have a contract. What do we have then?" Heero demanded without
"What we had, emphasis on had, was a stupid fucking
deal to get you to talk." Duo's mouth
made a hard line. No more comedy
mask. "I didn't know you'd take it to
"We had a deal -- "
"Sweet fucking Jesus wept, yeah!" Duo hissed, hands fisting
at his sides. "A deal that bit me on the ass more than once. Drop it.
From now on, I'll answer your fucking questions as I damn well
please. Because I want to, not because
Heero caught himself recoiling, tamping down the urge to
pull away while his brain worked rapidly trying to assimilate the shift. Could Duo do that? There was no penalty in their agreement. But could he step out of a contract like
that? If he could just change his mind
at any time, what was to stop him from doing so?
The anger went out, leaving a curious numbness behind. There had been no clause in their contract
keeping Duo from abandoning it at any time -- and when he felt that it no longer
suited him, he did just that.
to say to that?"
What could he say to that?
"Didn't fucking think so."
He looked out the windows; the light reflected off his glasses, white on
"We still have a mission," Heero said evenly, not sure if it
was to himself or Duo.
"Yeah," the other replied, barking a quick round of laughter
as his grin found its place again. "We
do have that. Shall we see what's taking
our ride so long?"
Nodding, Heero retrieved his bag from the floor and ran over
the plan in his head. First they would
locate G, then run reconnaissance before meeting with the Professor. Once they met him, they would proceed to
interrogate with whatever means deemed necessary to discover the nature of
their condition and whether or not the effects were reversible. "Do you have a plan in mind?"
"Sure," Duo told him.
"Just let me do the talking once we hit the L2 customs agents."
"We have Preventers' clearance," Heero pointed out.
"Yeah," Duo agreed blandly.
"It'll take forever to get through with that shit." This time Duo took the lead as they navigated
to the rental hanger, his boots scuffing out an even rhythm on the linoleum
tiles. "We'll use the Sweeper's dock. I'll have us through two hours quicker that
way. The sooner we're in, the sooner I
can get my hands on that rat-faced little fuck."