“In the Country that was once known as Pakistan, which is now part of the Romafeller province of Middle Asia a woman Name Muhtar was gang-raped at the order of the tribal council. The rape was perpetrated as punishment for her younger brother’s alleged affair with a woman from a higher caste tribe. In the former country of Sudan, now the Saharan Province, the rebel factions have again declared war on the populace. They have displaced over 50,000 men woman and children. Men and boys are murdered and maimed on a daily basis. One woman, Kuhari, was gang raped on her way to fetch water from her town’s only well. She escaped across the border to the neighboring country of Chad where she believed that she would be safe. In fact the rebels followed and she was once again caught and gang raped. This is merely an example of something that is perpetrated hundreds of times a day, gentlemen. A day! In the Former Republic of China the number of abortions and infanticides of baby girls is the highest that it has ever been. Genital mutilation, the cutting off of the clitoris, part or all of the labia, is still practiced throughout Middle Asia and the Saharan Province, what was once known as northern Africa. In the poverty stricken countries and colonies of the world woman are deigned access to education and equality under the law—
“Miss, Gray, if I might interrupt,” A silvery harried bureaucrat spoke up from the panel that was arranged before Angelina Gray, “we have heard all of these things before.” He said dryly, “They are atrocities I don’t disagree, but we are doing all that we can—
“You are not doing enough.” Angelina over road him, “Over half of the people of your respective country’s populations are under siege. These atrocities, as you call them, are on going. You have done little to nothing to stem the tide!”
“Now Miss Gay,” the representative of the Former Chinese Republic interrupted, “That’s not fair. We have all passed laws against the behaviors that you are describing—
“But you don’t enforce your laws!” Angelina fought to keep her voice calm, “You have passed these token resolutions to soften the criticisms of the rest of the world but you do nothing!”
The bureaucrats exchanged jaundiced looks, “And what would you have us do?” One of them asked.
Angelina ground her teeth together but her voice was calm as she replied, “Enforce your laws. Strengthen the punishments for those that would break them. Educate your police force and your populations on the correct procedures for the execution of those laws. Make sure that your women are allowed access to education, that they are aware of their rights and where they need to go to seek refuge.”
They smiled politely at the conclusion of her speech. One of the more earnest members of the board said, “I applaud your tenacity young lady, but these things are much easier said than done.”
Angelina looked from man to man. She sighed, “How would you know representative, you’ve never tired. Good evening gentlemen.” She trudged off the stage.
The look on Angelina’s face sent staff scurrying in all directions as she marched, stiff backed to her makeshift office. They had been humoring her, she fumed silently, waiting for her to make her speech and then move on, an inconvenience of thirty minuets, not to be remarked upon.
“Angelina, that was spectacular!” Cried a young woman in traditional Muslim garb as she came hurrying up to where Angelina was stripping out of her suit jacket. “You really gave it to them!”
“No Tulie, no I didn’t.” Angelina sighed miserably, “They weren’t even listening. Mother was right, they never listen.” She looked out the window at the manicured lawns; the pristine and paved streets devoid of garbage and human refuse. Their world. “They are incapable of listening.” She said finally, as she understood for the first time what her mother had been trying to tell her, “And now. Now I’m done talking.”
Twenty years latter . . .
Let us, on the dawning of this new era, get one thing straight. I am not a weapon. I am not perfect. And I am no longer a soldier. I am human, flesh and blood. I was trained past the endurance of many men and I came out—as far as the war effort was concerned—the better for it. I do not, it should be noted, regret what was done to me, and I regret very little of what I have done. I see it as a necessary sacrifice to help elevate this world above its collective stupidity; but I meant what I said at the end of the Mariemaia flare up. I am no longer required to kill. And I will not. Ever. I have grown weary of the inevitable emotional fallout that accompanies the mistakes that must be made in the course of war.
I believe my new attitude to be a combination of my early lessons gleaned at Owens’ side resurfacing and the more recent influence of the other pilots. In a way Dr. J was right to worry about my interacting with others, because it was through them that I experienced the full horror of the war: the regret, the pain and the sorrow. They each, in their own way, felt things so keenly and I was able, through them, to taste it and touch it and it served to point up my own lack. I had found warriors, competent and sure, who had not needed to suppress their humanity in order to function—and function well—in this war. In fact, on several occasions their emotions and empathy allowed them to function better than myself. Because, ultimately, humanity can only be suppressed, it cannot be eliminated, no matter how much we might wish it. And unfortunately it will resurface at the most inopportune times. Additionally, with a suppression of one’s humanity comes a dangerous lack of understanding of how to deal with it when it returns. Take, for example, my stunningly unintelligent display after the New Edward’s base incident. I was mortified that I had taken the lives of yet more innocents. My answer: commute around the world and offer myself up for martyrdom in return. In hindsight I recognize that this put all of the responsibility for my mistake on the shoulders of those that I had hurt. It was, as Silva Noventa noted, the act of a coward. But I was scared, not of being held responsible for my actions, but of the emotions that were suddenly raging through my mind. I did not know what to do. That was the first crack in the armor that J had so carefully crafted. Because it was then that I realized that while I was the physical superior to most grown men, I had the emotional development of a seven year old.
Now, on the eve of my sixteenth birthday, I am the survivor and victor of two wars. I have been trained as an assassin and as a soldier and now I am required as neither. I have lost my place in the world and in so doing have gained the freedom to chose. The only problem being that, once again, I have no idea what to do. I attempted to research possible solutions to my problem but it seems that mine is a fairly unprecedented one. While child solders are not unheard off, most of them die young—fewer still go on to write self-help books. One book that I read mentioned that it was beneficial to seek solace in those that had had like experiences. That limits the field quite substantially but it does give me a place to start. Of the pilots I worked mostly with Duo and Trowa. Trowa remains difficult to pinpoint as he has retained much of the itinerant spirit of a mercenary. So it is to L-2 that I set my course. And immediately come up against a problem. I am no longer possessed of my own means of space travel. Hell, I don’t even have a passport. This means that I have one of two options, I can buy a ticket on falsified documents, or I can stow away. Neither seems particularly favorable for an attempt at establishing myself within this new world I now inhabit. So . . . option three I suppose. The novelty shocks me slightly: I will apply for legal documentation.
I hesitated, well why the hell not, “Heero Yuy.”
The bored woman behind the sterile white counter doesn’t even look up. “Age.”
“Date of Birth.”
Hmm, “July first AC 350.”
“Place way park site number 16 Brussels EC1 6ESUN”
That finally elicits a reaction, as well it might, I live in an abandoned building complex. “What the hell kinda address is that?”
She gives me a look through her granny glasses and I stare her down. Keep trying lady I’ve made harden soldiers quake in terror; unsurprisingly she is the first to look away.
“Whatever” She grumbles, “So,” she looks me up and down, “You sure your 16?”
I find it fascinating that in order to get legal documentation you must already have legal documentation. “I don’t have a birth certificate. It was lost when my parents and I were escaping from our colony during the war.”
Her eyes narrow, no bleeding-heart this one, “And where are you parents?”
“They didn’t make it.”
She thaws enough to express her regrets but then insists, “You have to have a birth certificate and a utility bill showing your address before I can issue you a driver license. I’m sorry but that’s the law.”
I had been expecting this, I’ve been over the DMV of Brussels website and there is a contingency for just such occasions but I had to do a lot of digging to find it. I recite it now gleefully, “According to the statute of ESUN documentation and citizenship regarding the recognition of displaced persons in a time of war, if a person or persons presents him or herself at a registered government facility requiring new identification and can prove that he or she has no outstanding warrants for arrest and is in good moral character then he or she may be issued a provisional license that may be updated for a fully valid license in three to six months.” I love the part about being in good moral character, just who the hell is supposed to judge that I wonder.
The matron’s eyes grow wider with each sentence and finally, at the end of my recitation she huffs something about getting her manager and turns to leave me standing in line. I hear groans of frustration behind me. I ignore them. Fifteen minuets latter she returns with a burly man in a too tight suite and bad comb-over.
“What seems to be the trouble here?”
“My documentation was lost during the war; I’m invoking the Statute of ESUN displaced persons in order to reestablish myself as a citizen.”
“Oh, ah, Ok. Sure. We need to, um . . .”
I sigh internally, but nothing of my frustration reaches my face, “You need to finger print me and have it sent over to the local police department who will then establish that there are no outstanding warrants against me. Once done she can give me my test and then I will be on my way.”
“Right. Right.” Comb-over nods, “Step right this way Mr?”
The fingerprints aren’t attached to a name, they’re sent along with a description to the police department who runs them through the entire ESUN database. Within fifteen minuets I’m cleared and led out into the parking lot to take my test. Happily throughout this debacle they have forgotten to request a utility bill. I don’t have any. I repaired the onsite generator of the building and have been sleeping rough in one of the offices. Prior to the Mariemaia incident I was working for Relena as security; I was housed on sight and thus never needed to establish a genuine identity. But after making my vow to no longer kill, it would have made me a liability to stay on with the force, even though Relena insisted that I could. Personally I’m sure that the rest of the agents will be happy enough to see me go. They never knew quiet what to do with a fifteen year old ex terrorist in their midst. Fortunately I was paid and have access to the account, which will be how I’m funding this little expedition.
“Alright, we’re a-going to head towards the stop sign just there, and then we’re a-going to turn left out onto the main road. We’ll head to the south highway and over to the cross roads and then we’ll come back, got it?”
“Affirmative.” I pull out watching my speed because I think grandpa over in the passenger seat might go into heart failure if I hit anything above forty. I make the turn as instructed and follow the directions, which he feels the need to repeat some fifty odd times. When we get back to the parking lot grandpa is looking impressed which bodes well for me but I am more than ready to be done with all this. If the rest of the civilian world is this incompetent then we are all in a great deal of trouble.
“Well sonny that was mighty impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever had somebody score one hundred percent afore. Good for you.”
I return to the matron and am presented with a shiny new provisional license. Coincidentally she also seems happy to see me go. I get that a lot.
* * *
The Blood red moon is a Cheshire sliver in the Saharan darkness looking down on the barren dessert as Maksudan runs for her life. Her unshod feet pound the shifting sand, tears streaming silently down her face, she does not scream, there is no one to hear her. Three gunmen pursue her, they jog lightly after her, making catcalls and firing off random shots into the air. When they finally tire of toying with her they fall upon her easily. Now she screams, long and low, it is the scream of a woman who knows that there will be no rescue, no salvation. If she is very lucky they will only gang rape her. One of the men sneers at her as he waves his gun in her face, “Play nice now and we might let you live.”
Maksudan doesn’t reply, her eyes are huge in fear and she whispers prayers endlessness under her breath. Suddenly she sees the first man’s eyes change and she is splatter with his steaming blood. She squeaks in confusion, jerking back and scrambling away from them on all fours, the other men are already turning but it is too late, they too fall lifeless, shot through the head like their companion. It is then that Maksudan sees the figure appear, seemingly out of the air, dressed entirely in black, guns in either hand.
“Who are you?” She quavers. She speaks a form of tribal Arabic and bastardized French, but she is answered in kind.
“No, no, no, no, Hina is dead. Gone. They took her, she is dead.”
“Not any more.”
* * *
It is not, theoretically, possible to apply for a passport on a provisional license, but in order to get a permanent one I will be require to show proof of residency in one location for over three months and some how I don’t think that Place Way Park will prove sufficient. But I am tempted to try my luck on getting the passport with just the provisional license. If those issuing the passport are half as inefficient and unskilled as those issuing the driver license I might be able to bully my way through the process.
Sadly my first observation was clearly correct; these people are hopelessly inept and we are all entirely fucked. Not only was I granted a passport on a provisional license, but they also offered me rush processing so that a process that should take four to six weeks— and would allow for such an oversight to be corrected— will take just two days.
“I would like to buy a ticket to L-2.”
The woman behind the counter, a perky blonde with blue eyes—contacts—smiles at me. “Well alrighty then. What day would you like to leave?”
Her eyes get a bit wider, “Alright, what time?”
“Ooo-k, and return date?”
That catches me off guard. I have no idea. “I don’t know.”
She glances back up at me. “You don’t know when you’re coming back?”
“No.” Didn’t I just say that?
“So you want to buy a one-way ticket to L-2?”
“Ok,” she looks back down at the screen in front of her a small line creasing her brow, “that will be 4567.90 credits.”
I nod and hand over my card, she seems slightly soothed by the presence of the plastic and her unease dials down a bit but I can still tell that I’ve set off alarm bells. Damn it, what would the others do in this type of situation? What would Duo do?
I smile at her and lean forward confidentially as I’ve seen Duo do in the past, “I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous. I’m going up to surprise a friend and he doesn’t know that I’m coming.”
She looks up, smile back in place and winks at me, “Oh, I get it. Well have a good time. I’m sure that he’ll be thrilled to see you. Do you have any luggage that you want to check?”
“No. Thank you.” I add belatedly and her smile ratchets up another level.
I am shepherded onto the shuttle with the rest of the crowd, buckled into my seat and then left to my thoughts. I’ve gotten this far in mission mode. I have set tasks and executed them. Each step leading logically into the next, but now I am faced with the great unknown that is Duo Maxwell and once again—or still, I have no idea what to do. That is why I’m going, I remind myself, to express my unease and seek what was the word? Solace. Yes. That. My unease seems undeterred. As the engines prime I’m given to wonder just what the hell that means.
* * *
Mark Alexander, CEO and founder of Alexander Industries of Chicago sauntered into the smoky darkness. Eyes gleamed at him in the dim light and he felt the usual thrill of anticipation. He made show of looking over the girls that had been lines up for his inspection. They ranged in height and color, brunettes, red heads and blonds, tall and slender or pleasantly rounded in all the right places. A veritable buffet. He licked his lips appreciatively.
“See anything you like?”
“Mmm,” he hummed as he advanced on one of the girls. Shorter than him, with long blond hair she was a wafe of a girl, breast barely formed. She shrank back slightly and he smiled like a wolf, “What’s the matter darlin’ surly you’re not afraid of little ol me?”
“Please. No.” She whispered. Her voice was accented. Polish, or Russian maybe. He liked the Russians.
He laughed, “No?” He took hold or her wrist, “it’ll be over before you know it.”
He blinked and looked round at the sound of a thump from be hind him, “Max?” he asked the lump. He glanced up and let out a choked scream at the sigh of the gun pointing at him. He tried to pull the girl in front of him as a shield but she wasn’t there anymore.
“Don’t worry.” A voice mocked him, “It’ll be over be fore you know it.”
* * *
It was not until I was seated on the shuttle that it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was going to say to Duo once I got there. Words are not my forte, and the idea of trying to explain myself to that smirking face made my battle hardened nerves twinge. I pondered this unexamined phenomenon as the thrusters engaged and the chatter aboard settled down.
I have always loved take offs; I find them exhilarating. I watched the ground out of sight and then settled back to think over my options. Duo is currently staying with a nineteen-year-old girl name Hilde Schbeiker. A former OZ soldier; she now owns a salvage garage, which, presumable, Duo helps to maintain. I have to wonder if he has found it as difficult as I have to begin life anew as a sixteen-year-old ex-terrorist with little formal education. Our upbringings are similar in that they were extremely unconventional, disallowing for an easy transition back into the folds of society. I wonder if he is happy, collecting the refuse of the world, or if he had merely gone there for lack of anywhere else to go.
The shuttle ride is mercifully uneventful, save for the rather annoying antics of the smaller occupants of the shuttle. I have never like children and after this trip I believe that I am more than ever justified in that opinion. Granted some of that dislike my stem from my . . .past experience with one child in particular and the memories that are inevitably conjured up. But honestly, how hard is it to make a child shut the hell up. They're like Maxwell on methamphetamines . . . or when he's on demolition detail.
I looked out over the mass of concrete and steel that is the main thoroughfare of L2, and began walking towards the garage. The walk will take me over three hours but as I had yet to determine just what I was going to say to Duo, it was just as well.
* * *
The Janjuweed are a rebel faction that have thrived in the Saharan Province—once the Sudan—since 1900 Before Colony. Their presence as well as their continual decimation of the local population is no longer remarked upon. The leaders of the factions meet openly now in a tavern in the ravaged city of the former capital, Khartoum. The meeting mostly consists of bickering between members over the last disbursement of money and catcalls made at the tired and broken women who have been forced to serve them. As one man raises a hand to swat at one of the women whom he perceives to be taking too long, he jerks suddenly and then falls face forward in his food. Laughter fills the tavern, as then men around him belittle his inability to hold is liquor. But soon the laughter is quite as more bodies begin to slump over. Panic fills the room, guns are grabbed and screams of revenge and curses fill the air but soon they too are quieted as the last of them falls. The women, who have crawled under the tables for protection, wait fearing that they are now caught in the middle of yet another tribal war. Eventually four black clad figures appear, one orders the other three in a language the other women do not under stand, and they begin checking the bodies, removing their weapons and cash. As the room is systematically stripped the leader turns to the women who shrink back in terror.
“We mean you no harm.” The women are surprised to hear their language, but they are even more surprised to hear the voice of another woman. Slowly they crawl out from under the tables to stand uncertainly. The others return, bags overflowing with money and weapons, to the side of their leader. The bags of money are handed over to the bewildered women. And just as quickly as they came, they are gone.
* * *
Me, I'm a simple guy with simple needs: Food, shelter, and at least four hours of undisturbed sleep. Really, in the scheme of things, it's not askin’ a whole lot. Unfortunately my lovely roommate was inclined to disagree. Loudly.
"For the love of God Hil, shut the fuck up willya?" I hollered through the wall.
The aforementioned roommate with the death wish stuck her head through my door, "Duo, it's like five in the afternoon!"
"Fuck, Hil, I only went to bed," I glance at the clock and groan, "two hours ago. Go away an’ be quite about it."
"Fine Mr. Grumpy!" She pirouetted in my doorway and was gone.
I groaned again and fell back into bed, sitting back up to yank my braid out of the way and then collapsed once more. Seriously, one day I’m gonna pop her one. I mean it, cute little thing or no. And no, I don't care that she saved my ass once upon a time, so did Heero and you don't seem him here demanding unnatural and disturbing things like getting up now do you. Didn't think so.
Three hours latter I was up and out in the yard again separating piles amidst the screaming strands of Tvanegyar. It’s a new band that has come up with a nifty way of overlaying what could only be described as death rock over the strands of Chopin. Kids these days. I was casting about for the locking bolt I'd just hand in my hand when I glanced up to find none other than Mr. Heero Yuy savior of the world and everything standing at my gate. I haven't seen Heero since he was released from the hospital a few months ago after the Mariemaia mess. I blinked a couple times to make sure that I wasn't seeing things from lack of sleep and then stood up, ambling over to where he was standing, wiping my hands on a rag as I went.
"Well fuck me, what the hell are you doing in this neck of the woods?" I asked, looking him over. He looks ok physically, and his expression remained unreadable as ever, but there is something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Call it gut instinct. I dunno, but something seems . . . off.
Heero doesn’t respond right away, he seemed to be surveying the garage and its surrounding piles of crap. Ah the junk business, one man's trash and all that. "Beautiful ain't it?"
Heero raises an eyebrow at me and I snicker, "Seriously though man, what's got you out to this god forsaken colony—oh, oh dear God. Please tell me there isn't another war on." Heero shook his head and relief bloomed, "Then what?"
"I came to see how you were doing." He answered finally
Ooookay, that wasn't exactly what I'd been expecting, "Um, say what?"
"I came to see how you were adjusting to life after the war." He elaborated, the blank expression on his face never wavering. Like trying to take interpersonal cues from a brick.
I frown at him slightly, "Yeah, I'm fine . . . and last time I checked, had a phone. Dude what's up? Are you ok?"
"More or less. I came to . . . talk."
Today was turning out to be just full of surprises, I took a few moments to respond, indicating that he should follow me into the house, where I washed up and then offered him something to drink. He declined and we found ourselves exactly back where we started excepting the change of scenery. "So," I ventured finally, "What did you want to talk about?"
Heero was looking around the small kitchen. That it was utilitarian was the nicest thing that could be said about it. There were cracks down the walls and the sink was held together more by rust than anything else but it was clean. Well, mostly clean. More than twenty percent clean at any rate. Whaddya want, I’m a guy. I gave him time to finish his look around and then raised an eyebrow enquiringly when his gaze returned to mine.
"Are you happy here?"
My mouth twitched, ok apparently we were going to talk about me. "More or less." I answered, and was rewarded with a glare for parroting his words back at him. "It's a place. It's a roof and a bed and something to do. Why?"
Heero took a deep breath and replied, "I'm . . . not. Happy. I don't think. I mean, I'm not entirely sure what happiness is supposed to feel like, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't it. I hope it isn't it. I’ve done some research and I am fairly certain I am suffering from a type of posttraumatic stress disorder but was able to find little that would aid me in curing it. One article in Science Now suggested speaking to people of like experience."
Ah. "Hey Hil," I called from the kitchen into the living room, "Heero's going to be bunking with us for a bit."
"Cool." She called back.
I waved it away, "That's what friends are for buddy. Now come on, I'll give the grand tour."
That night, after a huge non-fight—because Yuy doesn’t actually fight, he either punches you or gives you the silence treatment—I managed to get him to take my room while I bunked out on the couch and thought about what he’d said. Leave it to Heero to confront the problem like it was a mission with verifiable parameters and a certifiable solution. I had to shake my head, I knew what he was talking about, though, there were few nights that I slept without being woken by screaming nightmares, it was one of the reason I worked myself to death. It helped to keep the dreams at bay. I was also pretty certain that I was suffering from some level of paranoia, but hell I was alive, that was more than most got out of that damn war, and certainly more than most that lived in my old neighborhood of L2. I was a skinny ass street rat that had managed to make it off the street. I could have done a helluva lot worse . . . but was I happy? I didn’t really know, I guess I hadn’t slowed down long enough to really think about it. I’m not much given to introspection. S’dangerous stuff. I was alive; I had food to eat, a roof over my head and a place to work. What else was there?
* * *
Middle Asia. Ruled by the former Rommafeller puppet, Price Muhammad Al-kzir. Currently the Prince, along with his top council advisors, is attempting to find a way evade the ESUN ruling that will require him to reign in the warring religious sects in his country. To do so would be to go against the wishes of the ruling Cleric Muhammad Mutark Al-din; A man who holds the allegiance of many dangerous men and is one of the only reasons that Price Muhammad has retain his current position as head of the province. To anger him would be to loose his own position of power. Price Muhammad has tried to explain the situation to the ESUN council; they remain, however, unmoved. The Prince looks up sharply from rubbing his temples at the sound of a silencer, his stomach clenching in hot panic at the sight of the black clad figures in front of him. He looks to his advisors and finds nothing but corpses.
“Who are you?” He demands, his voice wavering, but if he is to be killed he’ll at least know by whom.
The figure in front of him replies, “Vengeance.” And fires.
* * *
“Hey Hil, whacha watchin’?”
Hilde looked up from the television, “The news. The Price of Middle Asia along with all of the males of the royal house were all assassinated last night.”
“Nope, and so were all the male members of their congress. Apparently it is now made up of the two women delegates that were elected last year.”
“Well fuck. Do they know who did it?”
Hilde shook her head, “No one has come forwards to claim responsibility yet, but the anchor lady was saying that it had to be one of the religious sects. It’s going to be a field day for them now.”
“Goodie. Ah religion, opiate of the masses my ass. Well good morning soldier,” I offered to a rumpled looking Heero who had made his may into the living room, “and how did we sleep?”
He grunted in response, which was about as vocal as Heero got right after he woke up. I grinned at him, “All right sleeping beauty, we’re on breakfast detail.” He narrowed his eyes at me and I laughed.
Latter that day found us shifting through piles of crap, not unlike how Heero found me the day before, although I had left off the Tvanegyar, didn’t figure it was really Heero’s thing. It was Heero, surprisingly, who broke the silence.
“How do you find this satisfying?”
I glanced up at him, “come again?”
H was holding a fragment of metal, turning it over and over in his hands, he looked frustrated, as if he was trying to put something into words but he didn’t quite know how, “Life,” he said haltingly, “Should, it should have a purpose. This,” he gestured with the metallic shard, indicating the garage and its illustrious piles of refuse, “is not a purpose. It seems futile, empty.”
I thought about that for a moment, “And you have a purpose?” I queried
“Ah,” I pounced, “so that’s what’s really buggin’ you, it’s not what I’m doing, it’s what you’re not doing. You don’t have a purpose anymore.”
He blinked in surprise, eyes dropping back down to the shard in his hand “Yes. Partially.” He answered eventually. He raised his eyes to meet mine. The familiar light of the fanatic shining through once more, “But you need it too.”
I regarded him for a long moment, wondering how I could put into words what I was feeling. The, well, utter ridiculousness of the statement. If he knew . . . “Heero, buddy, walk with me.” I said finally. He didn’t argue as I led him out the gate. The walk took just over three hours; we didn’t speak the entire time. Heero was lost in his own thoughts I guess. Me, for my part, I was second and third and forth guessing the wisdom of taking him where I was taking him, but in my life actions have always spoken louder than words. I knew we were getting close when Heero seemed to perk up; this section of L-2 is no place to let your guard down. I hadn’t been back to the old neighborhood for a while. Right after the end of the first war I’d come back. If anything it looked worse than it had when I’d left all those yeas ago. Seeing it like that had hurt, a lot, and I’d wanted to help but I didn’t even know where to start. I’m not rich, I work in a scrap yard for pity sake, and I had no idea what to do. There is an orphanage now, on the sight where the church was, I give money as often as I can, but it never feels like enough.
I watched Heero’s eyes as they swept the streets, taking in the broken, boarded up windows, the crumbling, outdated and poorly constructed facades of the buildings, the huddled poor in dirty long coats and tattered gloves clustered around fire barrels. Two children in little more then rags ran by and I pulled him out of the way of a carefully timed nab. He looked at me questioning, not seeing the danger in a couple of five year olds and I grinned humorlessly, “I’m assuming that you want to keep your wallet?” His eyes went wide and he patted his pockets automatically, making me snicker.
I threw my arms wide and said, “Welcome to my childhood Heero. This is where I grew up. I stole food at vendors that used to set up shop where you see those bums congregating. I slept in warehouses not unlike that one, changing almost daily so that they cops wouldn’t come down on us. This is where I came from, and the only purpose that I ever knew was getting through the day. The punishment for stealing was Juvie, it didn’t matter how old you were or if you were starving to death. I saw a lot of friends disappear behind those black gates. One managed to make his way back—so that he could bleed out on the cement floor of our warehouse. For me, having a house with an actual roof, three squares a day, and a job is all the purpose I could ever ask for. So there’s your answer.”
Heero was quiet for a long moment, and I turned to focus on the street. Damn it but it looked bad. I sighed internally, fuck things were not supposed to end this way. I never considered myself and idealist, I’ve been to hell and back and I thought that I’d let all my illusions die by the light of a burning church, but for some reason I had thought that the war would have made some difference, that things would have been, if only just, a little bit better. Dream on Maxwell. “It’s not.” Heero finally said.
Pulled from my brooding I turned away from the street to ask, “Come again?”
“It’s not all the purpose that you could ever ask for. Like I said, you need more as much as I do,” he glanced at the street again, “Maybe more.”
Lookie Heero the therapist “Oh?”
“When I see you look at these streets, it’s a look that I remember from the battle field. This,” he indicated the street, “was your purpose, and,’ he quirked an eye brow at the ugly smile that was curling my lips, “it seems it still is.”
I sighed angrily; and this was exactly why I shouldn’t have brought him here. I scrubbed a hand through my bangs, “Look, once upon a time I thought so too, but that was a pipe dream. I can’t fight this,” I gestured in frustration towards the debris, “there’s nobody to blow up anymore Heero, all that’s left now is politicians snipping over who gets what and how much and while I’m many things, a politician ain’t one of’em. I did what I could, I gave’em hell and now the war’s over.” But nothing changed.
“No, it’s just changed shape.”
I started for a moment, wondering if I’d said that last part out loud but then realized that he was referring to the war. I rolled my eyes, “Thank you. That was very deep. These people, however, don’t need philosophy; they need food, and clothes and jobs.”
He just stared at me, and I shoved my hands in my pockets and turned to head back home. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Heero give the street one last look over and then he turned to follow.
* * *
“Matini, where did you get this?” Sudani Mahaiti whispers urgently. “How—
“It was angels Mama. They came and they set us free. They gave us this.”
Sudani Mhaiti shakes her graying head, “Angels, what angels?”
“The angles that killed the man that papa sold me to. They said that I could have it.”
Sudani beings to shake, she pulls her Sari more closely about her “What are you saying?” She whispers harshly, “You—you stupid child! You cannot take this that is stealing! You will be stoned!”
“No Mama! The angels said that I could have it! It will help pay for your medicine. And papa will still be able to keep the land. And—and I won’t have to . .” Her voice wavered, her large brown eyes grow glossy with unshed tears, “You’ll see it will be good.”
Sudani stares at the bag in her gnarled hands; it holds more money than she has ever seen in her life, she looks back at the daughter she had thought lost forever. “Praise Shiva.” She says weakly and Matini nods enthusiastically.
* * *
Captain Alexander James Brigs of the 126th airborne entered Command Une's office. He was a short, stocky man with buzzed black hair and a crooked nose. Formerly a member of both OZ and the Treize faction, Captain Brigs was a well-known quantity to the Commander. Blunt but honest, he could always be counted on to get the job done and was well respected for his ability to accurately assessing any situation. Commander Une had summoned him in an attempt to make sense of the mess that was currently Middle Asia.
"Thank you for coming Captain." Captain Brigs nodded politely and took the seat she offered him. "Brigs, I need to know what's going on out there. I've been getting nothing but static from the politicos—I know that I'm not being told the whole story. What the hell is going on?"
Captain Brigs regarded the Commander for a moment and then sighed heavily his shoulders slumping slightly, "Pandemonium is what is going on, Commander.” Commander Une gestured for him to continue. "Men are being slaughtered on a genocidal level. Entire city bocks have been entirely emptied of any male above the age of five. They, who ever they are damn it, are killing indiscriminately of race, socioeconomic status, location or even religious affiliation. Jews Christians, Muslims, rich poor, black, white and every color in-between. It would seem the only criterion is gender. Worse, we have no idea who is behind it. We’ve run up every lead we can find, and each time we hit nothing but dead ends. As for why you’re being shut out?” He shrugged, “Personally, I believe that the reason that the Preventers haven't been called in is because some of the higher ups are afraid that you might be involved.
Captain Brigs ticked the reasons off on his stubby fingers, "They need someone to blame, and you’re convenient. We're in the middle of trying to dismantle all of the regional armies, as you know and have lobbied for. This has left a major power vacuum, which many see your organization conveniently poised to fill. You haven't been around all that long, and people don't trust you. And finally your organization is rumored to have at least one former Gundum pilot working for it, and is headed by a woman who has had her share of, shall we say, instability."
Une snorted, "Nothing I haven't heard before." She hesitated for a moment, "Captain Brigs . . . AJ, I need to know if I can trust you with some of our intelligence. I don't mind if you share it, as long as you don't say that you got it from me."
"Not much of a problem, Lady, as far as I'm concerned this conversation never happened."
Une nodded, "AJ, it's not just in Middle Asia, the Saharan Providence has seen genocide of males as well. At first we thought that it was just the warring tribe again, but they're only targeting men."
Captain Brigs nodded, blowing out a burst of air, "I'd heard as much. I’d hopped it was exaggeration."
"If anything the numbers are being underestimated. My Intel estimates anywhere from twelve to fifteen thousand men have been killed. We have been unable to trace the source.” She looked frustrated, “And your officers have no ideas about who it might be? Other than us?" She added dryly.
"There’s been nothing, no terrorist group has come forward to lay claim to the carnage, and no demands have been made. I've been on the ground for the last four months, I've seen over 30,000 men murdered, 30,000 Une, and we haven't even see one of the assassins."
Une swore quietly. “Wonderful. Thank you for your help AJ, I would appreciate any future information that you might be able to get to me, but don’t get yourself in trouble doing it. His Excellency wouldn’t have wanted that.”
Brigs nodded at her, “I’ll do my best Lady.” He rose to go and but Une called him back.
“AJ? Be careful.”
He smiled, “I’ll do my best.”
* * *
Angelina Gray stared out of her office window as the women returned from yet another raid. Their energy high, clearly euphoric, the women laughed and shouted as they ran back into the compound. She had taken these girls from abusive homes, saved them from forced abortions, forced prostitution, and slavery. They were her daughters, her friends and her great hope for the world. It was through them that she would change this world for the better; for they could do the work—make the changes— that her pleas and speeches to all the bureaucrats of the world could not. This would be her legacy. It was not the legacy that she had wanted to leave. It was a legacy of blood and of violence and ultimately it would fall short of the goal that she had fostered in her young protégés— the total annihilation of the male species, which was quite possibly the only thing that would truly liberate the female race. They would stop her. She knew that. But if she could not make her point with words then she would do at the point of a gun. She would rip open the rotting wounds of the world and she would make them see. Yes, ultimately she would fail, but she would go down fighting.
My position at the Preventers has, from the moment that I signed on as Sally Po’s partner, been something of a sticking point with the other agents. Normally I can ignore it, but there are days, such as today when that is made more difficult. To be sure I have my own champions in the organization. I’m a work horse, dedicated and driven, my point and purpose is my work. This has made me a model agent, someone to be looked up to and admired. It has also made me a target. I understand, intellectually anyway, the bureaucratic nonsense, the office politics of the fact that the harder I work the harder everyone else has to in order that they not look slack by comparison. That is their problem. If they are so insecure that they cannot feel satisfied with they’re own level of commitment that they have to parrot the work habits of another in order to feel “good”—for whatever level good can be measure by in such a warped mind—at their job then they should seek another job, or at the very least psychiatric help, not vengeance.
Today the focus was my age. Yes, I am a fifteen-year-old working in a department manned mostly by people in their late thirties. And yes, I out rank most of them. Normally the complaints stay behind closed doors or are drowned by copious trips to the water cooler to indulge in petty carping. Today, however, this was not the case.
We had a new member of the squad moving up from training; as usual he was to be set up as Agent Wilder’s partner until he was assigned one full time. Wilder is a good agent. She is efficient, dedicated, hard working and hates bureaucratic nonsense even more than I do. She acts as a vetting agent for all of the new recruits, taking them out into the active field before they are assigned a partner. It’s a job that requires nerves of steel and a lack of self-preservation, because even the most veteran agent is vulnerable if her partner is an incompetent. Wilder has the scars to prove it.
I was accosted by said new agent on my way to a briefing with the Commander. He addressed me as “Hey kid,” despite the blindingly obvious fact that I was in a uniform that clearly out ranked him. I was not amused. I informed him coldly that he was addressing a superior Agent and that perhaps he should take a moment to track down the orientation guide book as he had obviously forgotten what a Chief Agent’s uniform looked like. And do you know what he did? He laughed. He. Laughed. And then accused me of dressing up for Halloween. I have given up a great deal in the course of the higher pursuit of peace: I have ignored slights on my honor, I have lain to rest some very personal ideals, I have become more compromising, abandoning the simplicity and familiarity of black and white for the ambiguities of gray. But there are some things that I will not tolerate. I am given to understand that he will be out of the hospital in several days and able to go back on light duties within a few months.
The Commander was not pleased, I was reprimanded and a mark was placed in my file. It was also recommend to me that I seek time with the physiatrist on staff—which I have no intention of doing.
Finally when the commander had wound down from her tirade I asked quite calmly, “was there anything else.”
Une opened her mouth, shut it and then glared at me, “You don’t even care do you.”
“No. Now was there anything of importance that you needed me for?”
“Chang, I’m serious, you cannot attack other agents because of their stupidity.”
“Nonsense. I think it better that they be dispatched by someone who knows what they’re doing and has no intention of killing them rather than getting themselves killed on the street out of idiocy. If nothing else Wilder will thank me.”
Une looked at me for a long moment and then finally remarked wryly, “I’ll take that under advisement.” I have to say that for a former mad woman the Commander is remarkably effective as a leader. Unlike many that I have encountered, she is unafraid to veer from standard procedure, and she is resilient, unfettered by the bonds of tradition. Odd considering her infatuation with Khushrenada. And certainly her dedication to the cause cannot be faulted. Her face became serious once more, “Actually I called you in because I have a special assignment that I need you and Sally to work on.” She pushed the call button on her desk, “Alice, send Agent Po in please.”
Once Sally was settled Une moved to sit behind her desk. "I'm sure that both of you are familiar with the news reports coming out of Middle Asia." We nodded in ascent and she continued, "I wish that were the worst of it, but I'm afraid that things are far worse than the media is letting on. It wasn’t just the palace that was hit. The entirety of Middle Asia is seeing genocide of all males over the age of five. The population of the area has been decimated in a matter of weeks and worst yet it is not isolated to Middle Asia. The Saharan Province has also been targeted. As of this morning over 50,000 men have been killed. Our intelligence has been able to gather little on those perpetrating the attacks. To date not a single witness to the killings has come forward to give evidence—
"But surely someone must have seen something." Sally interrupted, "You can’t wipe out 50,000 people and not have any witnesses. It’s not possible."
Une nodded, "Granted, but these are extremely unstable regions. Authority is often distrusted and in many cases nonexistent. There may not have been anyone to give information to. That is the reason that I'm sending you I need more information. I need to know who they are, their means of transport, their agenda, and most especially the location of their base of operations. People are dying, and the men and women on the ground have been unable to even being to stem the tide."
"We are we to start?"
"The Saharan Province. It hasn't been televised. Hopefully they won't expect us to be looking there. You’ll catch the next flight out tomorrow morning at zero eight hundred. You will be meeting up with my Intel team working out of Khartoum. They will bring you up to speed and give you a place to start. For all our sakes, you’d better not screw this up. Dismissed."
* * *
Sally shaded her eyes against the harsh glare of the Saharan sun, "A little bleak isn't it?"
I glanced around from where I was watching them unload out equipment from the plane and had to agree, nothing but sun bleach grass and scrub brush for as far as the eye could see. "Be careful with that!" I barked as one of the pilots nearly dropped one of our cable bags. He glanced at me opened his mouth, seemed to think better if it and went back to unloading.
Sally laughed, "Making friends already are we." She ignored my glare and pointed towards a small dot on the horizon that was kicking up clouds of sand, "I hope that's our ride."
The jeep pulled to a stop and a diminutive blond in camouflage jumped out, "Hu-yah, you must be Agents Chang and Po, welcome to the god forsaken Sahara. I'm Agent Amanda Riker."
Sally smiled, "Thanks for coming all the way out here to get us."
She waved it away, "No worries. Oi, you lot," She bellowed at the pilots who had finished unloading our bags from the plane, "Lets stow those bags hereabouts and we'll be on our merry way."
"So there's just the three of us at head quarters, Me, Marshall and Muhammad. They're good blokes, you’ll like’em. Muhammad is our spy guy, Marshall is the muscle and I'm the brains. Now I warn you we've been down here for about three months and we've found jack, and Muhammad has been in black ops longer than I've been alive, so if he can't find anything then you know the buggers are under deep, but hopefully you lot will be able to come up with something. The Commander is fit to be tied these days. Calling every other bloody day and demanding miracles. I can't tell'er what I don't know I says." She shook her head blowing out a stream of smoke. She took another drag on her cigarette and then said, “The place we're staying is on the outskirts of town, and the story that we cooked up is that you’re with the Humanitarian Council."
"Are there many members of the Council here?" Sally asked, exchanging glances with me as the jeep hit yet another pot hole and slammed us into the roof. Again.
"Are you kidding?’ Riker laughed, ignoring the jostling of the jeep. If the condition of the road bothered her, she showed no sign. “They're members of the Humanitarian Council down here every other bloody day. Fuck, we're posing as members of the Council. They—the real ones—don't ever do anything, mind you, wankers, but they're here just the same. Our cover is that we're teachers. The three of us work in the only school that they've got. You're story is that you're novices come to learn the ropes." She waggled her eyebrows at me via the review mirror.
Sally laughed and I rolled my eyes, "Yes. Very good, I'm young for an agent, well spotted. Can we get on with it?"
"Oi, he's not half cranky now is he.” She asked Sally turning to wink at me, “Alright sunbeam, here ya go.” She handed back packets of information for Sally and I to look over, "read through this, it’s all the info on your covers, you got any questions you can take'em up with Muhammad cause he's the bloke what made'em up."
I glanced through my packet and was forced to concede a grudging respect of this Muhammad; he was clearly very good at his job. Everything was here, names, birth dates, hell even religious affiliation: Muslim. Of course in an area such as the one we were entering religion was still a killing cause whatever the suits at ESUN said. I read through the packet a few times committing it to memory, Sally was doing like wise. When I got to the section on life story, however, I had to roll my eyes; apparently I am posing as an exchange student being sponsored by Sally. Wonderful. Ancestors speed the day of my twenty-first birthday; perhaps then I will be taken seriously without have to concuss anyone. Sally glanced up and gave me a lopsided smile, "So are you Christian or Muslim?"
"It's easier for Christian women to move round here than it is for Muslim ones." Riker interjected “I'd like to say that it'll be a non issue but it won't be. I catch a lot of crap for going round in fatigues," She sighed, issuing forth another stream of smoke "the locals are mostly good people but they like things the way they like'em." She shrugged
Riker pulled up in front of a small brown building that appeared to dance through the haze of heat. A lone tree struggle for survival near the western corner and scrub grass fought a losing battle with the encroaching desert. “Well here we are, home sweet home.” Riker jumped out of the jeep and began unloading our bags, while her back was turned a huge black man appeared in the door way of the small building, fierce tribal tattoos clearly viable on his face and arms.
“Hello den Riker,” he boomed, “dese da new ones den yes?”
Riker turned and grinned, “That they are mate. You wanna give me a hand with these?” She asked jerking her thumb at our bags, “Change, Po, this is agent Marshall, I know he looks scary as hell but he’s actually much worse.”
Marshall laughed hugely, his dark face split by a flash of white teeth, “Dats da nicest ting you said to me all day Lady.”
“Marshall is from Morocco by way of the Caribbean.” Riker explained as she led us through the dingy building. It wasn’t a mud hut, but it wasn’t far off. There were four rooms all told, the center room, which was used as a type of command central and make shift kitchen, and three spare rooms. Two of which were being occupied by the other members of the team leaving Sally and me with the last—and smallest— room.
“Po, mate, if you wanna bunk with me your more than welcome—
“Don do it, she snores like a chainsaw.”
Riker stuck her tongue out at Marshall and then continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “It’ll be a bit cramped, but I don’t mind.”
“I should be ok, but thanks.”
“No problem. Dinner’ll be at eighteen hundred, I’ll leave you to get set up, if you need anything gimmie a shout. There’s only one loo and really we’re lucky to have that, it’s off the main room. Go easy on the water, we havfta lug it up from the local well.” She grinned wickedly, “You’ll learn to love that chore. I’ll work out a new shower rotation.”
When she and Marshall had gone, I sank down on the bed glad to have some quiet for a moment. The room contained two military style cots and a small table. The only source of light was a single, naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.
“Well,” Sally offered as she took a seat on the other cot, “they seem nice, it could certainly be a lot worse.”
“You mean we could be stuck in the middle of a God forsaken dessert sharing one shower between five people—ancestors, I’m getting flashbacks.” Sally snickered “Don’t laugh at me woman, this is going to be hell.
* * *
Mary cowered in her room as she hear the door slam and her father’s voice roar, “Where the fuck are you? You bitch. I’ll teach you to mind your betters.” He slammed through the house, upending furniture and sending the meager contends of the china cabinets flying.
“Harold, no—her mother’s anguished cry was cut off and Mary felt tears start to slide down her face at the sound of the heavy thud that followed. She gripped her teddy bare more tightly, rocking mechanically back and forth, praying for it to be over. It seemed like hours until she heard the door open. She squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation of the blow but instead she felt gentle hands on her face. She looked up in surprise and found herself looking into the eyes of a woman that she didn’t recognize.
“It’s ok sweetie.” The woman crooned gently, “He’s gone. You’re safe.”
“Mama?” She quavered, “
The woman’s gray eyes darkened, “We’re taking her to the doctor. She’ll take good care of her.”
Mary nodded spasmodically and clung to the woman as she scooped her up. “We’ll go see her ok?”
Mary clutched her teddy bare to her and nodded again.
* * *
"Minster Dorlan speaking."
I debated the wisdom of involving Relena in my search for personal resolution, but after the trip with Duo yesterday, a plan has begun to form, if tentatively and she proves to be the best and most accessible source of information. Clearly Duo has a purpose; he is simply being block from realizing it. By extension, helping Duo attain his purpose will give me something to work towards for the moment, allowing me to, as Resilience of the Mind by Dr. Allen Ingot put it, “expand my horizons and enable me to move beyond my limited viewpoint of the world.” Unfortunately, I knew of only one resource of any type of prove efficacy to which I could turn, that being Relena, for the answer that I needed. "Hello Relena, its Heero."
"Heero! My god, how are you, I haven't heard from you in ages. Are you ok?"
I am not an idiot. I understand that Relena is . . . infatuated with me. You would have to both blind and dumb to miss it. It troubles me, I'm not sure how to communicate that I do not return her feelings without hurting her. She is a good person, kind, intelligent and hard working. We are simply not compatible. Perhaps, one day, when I feel that I am . . . grounded? Balanced? I will be able to seek something like a normal relationship, but personally I doubt it. "Yes, I'm fine. I was calling to see if you could give me some advice."
"Yes, yes of course. How can I help you?"
Inwardly I wince at her almost sycophantic tone, suppressing the emotion out of habit rather than need because she can’t actually see me. Vid calls from space are expensive. “I'm currently on L-2 with Duo Maxwell, you remember him, he was one of the other pilots?"
"Yes, he was the one with the braid wasn't he?" Her voice has become guarded, questioning. A tone that she took whenever he was mentioned, I remember belatedly.
“Yes, that's him. This morning he took me to an area of L-2 that is extremely impoverished, he seems doubtful that anything will be done to improve the situation. I was wondering what, if anything was planned to help the citizens of such areas, both here on L-2 and on earth."
Relena was a quiet for a moment, I think I took her by surprise, which is understandable given that I have never expressed interest in the plight of civilians in front of her. "Um, well, I can give you a general over view of what we hope to accomplish in the future, right now everything is still in transition. We're still reeling from the Mariemaia incident, but we are making progress. I'm afraid, however, that the areas like L-2 are, well, to be honest Heero, they're not a high priority right now."
I could almost here Duo's snide "I told you so." This was unacceptable. "Why not?"
"Because we're trying to make sure that we don't end up with another Mariemaia incident. I'm sure you've heard about what's going on in Middle Asia. Things are too unstable right now for any type of rebuilding program to get off the ground."
It’s sad how close this was to what Duo had been saying earlier. "How would one go about getting a rebuilding program off the ground?"
Relena hesitated, "Well, it would depend on what you were trying to accomplish, but initially you'd need funding, and to have any kind of real impact we're talking trillions of credits and then you'd need an organization to funnel the money through and to oversee the disbursement of funds."
"And you don't believe that ESUN would be willing to undertake this in the near future?"
"Oh Heero, don't sound like that, It's not that we don't want to, it's that we are not in a position where we can. We have to maintain the peace."
In other words the status quo. "Very well. Thank you for your assistance Relena."
"Are you, would you consider coming back to the force? You wouldn't need to actually go into combat," she rushed to assure me, "We could really use you to train the new recruits."
"No, thank you." And I hung up.
The next morning, around zero three hundred I was roused by something that sounded a great deal like a cat being tortured. I followed the sound out into the scrap yard where I found Duo sorting the piles. He glanced around quickly, hand reaching for a crow bar not far from him. I raised my hands automatically to show that I was unarmed. We exchanged glances and he tossed the crowbar aside, a not all together pleasant smile curving his mouth, but "Old habits." was all that he said. He glanced at his watch and then asked, "Did I wake you?"
"Sorry," he replied, rubbing the back of his neck and he turned off the radio and the cat was finally given its release. "Hil sleeps like the dead."
"Couldn't sleep?" I already knew the answer. I could see it in his eyes; I’ve seen the same thing in the mirror. Of the five us, Duo always seemed to be the most light hearted, the best adjusted. Certainly the most likely to survive. I find it . . . disheartening to find that he is equally troubled. He doesn’t look at me, just keeps sorting and I take that for the answer that it is. "I spoke with Relena today." I continued, that gets his attention and he glances up. "I asked her about possible renovation and aid programs for the area of L-2 that you showed me today."
"Lemme guess. We have great plans but right now we’re focusing in a different area?"
"Something like that, yes."
He snorted, "Told you."
My mouth quirks slightly despite myself "Yes, I thought you’d say something like that. So I asked her what someone would have to do in order to do the work the ESUN should be doing but isn't."
Duo raised an eyebrow at me, "become god?"
"No” I countered, “You’ve already done that." the bark of laughter I received in return is gratifying, "No, she said that it would take trillions of credits and would require a vast organization to manage and distribute the money."
Duo began patting the sides of his sweat pants, "Damn it, isn't that always the way,” he muttered theatrically, “m'fraid that I'm fresh out of pots of gold. Try back next month."
Expecting an answer along those lines I ignored him, "I have roughly 500,000 credits in my account," the bug-eyed expression on his face is equally gratifying. "We could use it as seed money. More importantly while you may, currently, be lacking sufficient funds, we both know someone who isn't."
"How do you have—wait you mean Quatre? Man we're not gonna show up on Q's doorstep with our hats held out. That's not cool."
"Because it puts him in an awkward position man, if we show up he'll feel obligated to give us something."
"I thought that was the point?"
He blinked and I smirked at him, "But really we both know that real problem is that you're just too damn proud to go asking for help."
Duo's mouth dropped open and then snapped shut, “Where on earth did you get 500,000 credits? You rob a bank or something."
"I worked for Relena between the wars. She paid well and I lived on site so I didn't have many expenditures."
Duo cocked his head to the side, "Why didn't you go back? After the war I mean? The second one."
He’s side tracking me. I know this, and we’ll get back to the main point monetarily. But, other than Relena I haven’t told anyone my reasons for leaving. For needing to leave. I have a foggy recollection of Une being present, which possibly explains why the Preventers have never contacted me. But since that day, I haven’t told anyone. But perhaps it’s time. After all it is the reason that I’ve come here. "After,” my eyes shift away from his, looking back, looking into the eyes of so many others that I have killed, so many lives that I have ended prematurely. “. . . after the second war I decided that I wasn't going to kill anymore."
Duo let out a low whistle; something seeming to click into place. "Is that what—damn. Well good for you, man." He says, his approval obvious in his tone. I blink, it was not the response that I'd been expecting, I'd tensed waiting for his scorn and now I feel my muscles uncoil, suddenly off balance with a surplus of adrenaline that I suddenly do not need. Duo smiled, genuinely smiles, and stood up, walking over to where I stood. "Heero you are the most amazing soldier that I have ever met," I tense again and he reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder, "but you are also a sixteen year old kid. You got the first one down to an art.” He gave my shoulder a squeeze, “Time to give the second one a try."
So this is what it is like to have someone like you for who you are rather than what you can do for them. I swallow down the taste of the unfamiliar feeling, "Come with me to L-4?"
Duo looks at me for a long moment and then sighs, his eyes shifting, looking back at a past that I cannot and will most likely never be able to fully understand, "I don't know if it will be enough. Just throwing money at it won't make it go away."
"Then we will find a way. We will make things change."
He looked back at me, the sides of his mouth twitching, "you know, just saying it in that assertive voice will not make it any truer."
"I'll make it true."
Duo laughed, "Ah hell why not? You saved the whole damn world, why not L-2's slums? I'll tell Hil in the morning. Now come on, we got some planning to do."
I smiled and moved to follow him when he turns suddenly and hugs me. It is so unexpected that it caught me completely off guard. "Thanks." Was all he said and then, before I had time to react, he was heading into the house, braid swinging behind him.
* * *
"There is sand EVERYWHERE!" Sally bellowed as she tromped into the room.
"I believe that's why they call it a desert." I replied not looking up from my laptop. We had been in the Sahara less than two weeks and I was already sick of it. Whatever I said to Sally she was right. It was everywhere, in my food, in my teeth, in my hair, in my undergarments. It was inescapable. I sighed, "Anything?"
"No, not a fucking thing."
I glanced up sharply; Sally has to be extremely upset to resort to expletives, "what's wrong?"
"The village fifteen miles over was decimated last night."
She glared at me tiredly, "I don't know Wufei. If I did I’d be calling Une not sitting here talking with you wearing half the desert in my pants. I don't know what happened, yesterday everyone was present an accounted for, this morning, all the men are dead and half of the women are missing. The ones that are still there say that they don't know what happened and that they didn't see anything. Marshall and I talked to all of them—or tried to anyway, no one is talking."
"Do you think they were threatened into silence?"
"Who knows?" She scrubbed a hand through her hair and made a face "I'm going to take a shower."
I watched her go and sighed, Sally had been on a recon mission, trying to gather information from the locals in the surrounding villages under cover of scouting out a location for a new school. Unfortunately the locals had remained very tight lipped. Naturally distrustful of outsiders anyway they seemed even more hesitant to speak with Sally than normal xenophobia would warrant. We had finally decided to switch tactics, she was going to take over my position of trying to set down a pattern by mapping and updating attack locations and I would try to get the locals to open up. I snorted, things had to have gotten pretty bad if I was being sent out to try and get people talking. I decided to get something to eat and headed out into the main room. Riker had been gone for the last week, updating the Commander in person about the situation and Marshall had gone to pick her up from the air strip after dropping off Sally, so the stranger standing in the main room found himself with my gun in his face.
"Identify yourself." I barked
He cocked his head to one side, shoulder length brown hair catching on the sleeves of his white tunic. "You must be Change Wufei, Riker said you were rather tightly wound."
"Identify yourself." I ground out; although I had a pretty good idea that this must be the famed Muhammad.
"I am Al-zawi Muhammad al-danini." He bowed his head slightly, "most call me Muhammad, and I would be very grateful if you could lower your weapon. I would hate to have to kill someone so beautiful." I gaped at him for a full thirty seconds, finally jamming my gun in its holster, my face flaming. "Thank you.” He continued, “And am I right in assuming that you are Agent Change Wufei?"
"Yes." I growled.
"Wonderful." He smiled brightly, “Welcome to the Sahara.”
I glared at him, wiling the rest of the blush to leave my face as I opened my mouth to retort but was interrupted as Sally reemerged from the shower, “Oh, God I feel human again." She stopped dead at the sight of Muhammad, took in my holstered gun and our close proximity and smiled, "You must be Muhammad."
He swept toward her, hands out stretched, "And you must be Agent Sally Po" He took her hand and kissed it, bowing once again, "It is wonderful to meet both of you."
"Whatever." I replied, retreating back to our room, Sally giving me an odd look that I refused to return. I slammed the door and stomped over to the small control center we had erected on the wobbly table in the corner and set about mapping the newest attack reports. My stomach would just have to wait.
“What was that all about?” I could hear Sally ask through the thin wall.
I ground my teeth at the sound of laughter in Muhammad voice, “I believe that I embarrassed him with a remark that I made.”
“Really?” Sally sounded surprised and amused, “And what remark would that be?”
I held my breath waiting for the response, “Out of respected for Agent Change, I will decline from repeating it. But should you speak to him about it, please tell him that no offence was meant.”
I finally emerged from our room later that evening. Muhammad was preparing dinner and chatting with Sally who was sitting at the table cleaning her gun, neither commented on my absence and I sat down at the table and began checking my work against Riker’s. About twenty minuets later, I glanced up at the sound of the jeep pulling up which heralded Marshall and Riker’s return. Riker stomped through the main room. Without breaking stride she said tersely, “Hello Muhammad, hello you lot, I’ll be in my room getting pissed.” And with that she slammed the door.
Muhammad glanced at Marshall, “I take it things did not go well with the Commander?”
Marshall shrugged eloquently, “I don know. She didn’t say a ting da whole way here.”
“For three hours?” Sally asked, wide eyed
“She don like to talk when she’s angry, an’ I don like to encourager her.” He replied grinning, “She’ll be fine, Lady, you’ll see.” He turned to Muhammad, “Welcome back mon, how was tings?”
“Interesting. I was going to wait and make my report to Riker, but since that might be a bit, I’ll let you all know what I’ve found.” He moved the curry off the stovetop and set it down on the table, “I’m afraid that I wasn’t able to come up with much. The locals seem too scared to even talk about it among themselves. I was able to track down one of the women who normally works as a server at the tavern where the heads of the local Janjuweed were assassinated. It took nearly three hours to work her round to admitting that she was even there that night. Finally, she said” Muhammad’s voice took on a tone of scholarly skepticism, “that they’d been liberated by angels.”
The rest of the table, myself included, just stared at him. Finally Sally asked, “You . . . she was serious?”
Muhammad nodded, “Quite. I pressed her on the point and she said that three angles, dressed in black—women apparently, had entered the tavern, killed the men and released them to their freedom. After that she seemed to think she’d said too much and I couldn’t get anything else out of her.”
“Women?” Marshall repeated
“That’s what she said. Women.”
“But how did they get there? Where did they go?” I pressed
But Muhammad only shrugged, “She didn’t know. Or rather she said that they returned to heaven.”
“Can we even be sure that she was telling the truth?” Sally asked
“She thought she was.” Muhammad replied, “Whether it actually was the truth or something borne of the psychological fallout of a harsh life and the event that she witnessed?” He shrugged.
I sat back, “This is ridicules. It can’t actually be true. She was hallucinating.”
“Maybe you con find out more when you two go out tomorrow.” Marshall said as he began clearing the table.
This was news to me, “I thought you were taking me?”
Marshall laughed, “No mon, I hate that spy crap, it’s Muhammad who knows how to get them villagers to open up. You jus wait, he’ll have’em singin’ in no time.”
* * *
"We should have brought a gift." I groused as we walk towards Q's front door. Good Lord, he probably needed a whole separate zip code just for the driveway.
"What?" Heero asked, clearly lost.
"When you go visit people you bring them gifts, its, well it’s what you do." I finish lamely, Sister Helen had told me that once, when we paid a house call to a young couple just starting out, we brought them cookies.
Heero shrugged, "We could give him cash."
And I can't help it, I burst out laughing, "No, ah, no Heero you're kinda missing the point." Heero looked confused and I just wanted to, I don't know, hug him or something. I can't help feeling that of the two of us, I'm the lucky one in the childhood department, and that's saying something. "The point of the gift isn't really . . ."I try again, "Q doesn't actually need anything yanno? The gift is kinda a thank you for letting us into his house kinda thing. And cash," I forestall him, because I can see the logical argument of offering cash rather than gift welling up in his brain, "Cash is not considered suitable for giving as a gift. I don't know why." I answer before he can ask and his mouth snaps shut.
Finally, when we stop at the front door and ring the bell, Heero turns to me and says, "We could get him one latter?"
"We could take him to a movie or something." I nod because for some reason this seems to have become important to Heero. Sometimes it is just impossible to understand where he's coming from, I try, but his mind is as logical as a computer and just as circuitous. But I’m glad that he’s here. And I’m glad that he’s trying. And Q could probably use a night on the town.
"May I help you?" A man in a butler's uniform strait out of the some ancient move has answered the door and is hovering menacingly.
"Hi!" I say brightly, completely ignoring the way he is sizing us up and clearly not liking what he sees. Eat it buddy, "We're friends of Quatre's."
The Butler sniff, "Do you have an invitation?"
"Nope!" I responded happily, "S'sorta a surprise visit."
"I'm afraid that without prior knowledge that I can't—
"Mr." I interrupt, an edge sliding into my voice, I tried nice, know we'll do it Shinigami style. "You just scurry on over to Q and tell him that Heero and Duo are here. We'll wait."
The butler looks like he just wants to close the door, but hesitates. "Very well, please come in and I'll inform Master Quatre that you are here." We enter and I can't hold back a whistle, I've never been in anything so massive. The man lives here? Fuck, you could play football in the entryway. The butler disappears but I notice that a guard has come to stand unobtrusively at the end of the hallway. Heero and I exchange glances, moving slightly apart to give each other room to maneuver should it come to that.
"Heero! Duo!" Quatre's voice rings out astonishingly loud in the opulent silence.
I turn and a smile breaks over my face, "Hey Q man! How's things?"
Quatre laughs and rushes forward to hug me, "I'm fine, wonderful! Heero, it's wonderful to see you as well." Quatre doesn't hug Heero but bows expertly, causing Heero to relax slightly, having tensed in anticipation of the same kind of greeting that I had received and bows back. I snicker and then take Q by the arm.
"Dude, you need a new Butler, Mr. Frosty's got to go!"
Quatre's eyes narrow, "I'm sorry about that. The situation has been explained." His face brightened, "So what brings you guys here? Are you going to be staying for long?"
I glance back a Heero who is tailing us slightly, he looks and me and I gesture with my eyes because this was his idea and I'm not going to be the one to ask him.
"We have a business venture to discuss with you." Heero answers finally, causing Quatre to half turn to look at him
"Really?" He raises an eyebrow questioningly, still grinning. "Alright. I'll show you to your rooms and then we'll sit down and talk."
I grin, "Thanks Q that sounds great. I hope we're not putting you out?"
Quatre laughs, "Duo, I've got thirty three bedrooms in this place! The entire Maganac Corps couldn’t put me out."
"So, what is the nature of this business venture?" Quatre asks taking a sip of tea
Heero, sitting ramrod strait on the chair across from him, pulls out his laptop. "I'm sure that you are aware of the conditions on L-2 and other areas that have never really recovered from the occupation and the two wars." Quatre nods and indicates that Heero should continue, "We are tying to start up a charity organization that would assist such areas."
"The organization would go into these places and help the people get back on their feet." I jump in. Heero and I had discussed this on the way here, and I had reiterated that just throwing money at it was not going to help. "These people need affordable housing, education supplements, job assistance. We're not just going to hand out money. We're going to provide critical institutions so they will eventually be able to take care of themselves."
"We need funding in order to get started." Heero explains, picking up where I left off. “I have spoken with Relena and she says that ESUN will be unable to aid us at this time. We have roughly 500,000 credits but understand that this will prove insufficient to actually sustain the organization."
Quatre is grinning from ear to ear, "This is a wonderful idea guys! Of course I'll help you!"
I smile back at him, "Thanks Q, we really appreciate it."
Quatre waves it away, his eyes glowing, "No, this is fantastic! I've, I feel like I'm," he sighs and shakes his head, "I see everything on the news, and I want to help, but—
"We are hands on type of individuals." Heero explains for him
"So," I ask glancing around the room, "how's your business going?"
"Oh, wonderfully. Thankfully things were left in the hands of one our most reliable managers, Tony Winters. We actually came out ahead after the war thanks to some quick thinking on his part. He's been bringing me up to speed, but . . ."he hesitates, eyeing Heero's laptop, "but if you guys could use some help, you know, beyond money, I'd like to help."
"God Q, we were hoping you'd say that, we don't have a clue what we're doing!" I laugh euphorically; I cannot for the life of me believe that things are going this well. I glance at Heero who looks extremely pleased.
"Your help will be invaluable Quatre." Heero assures him, "Thank you."
For his part, Quatre looks like he's going to start jumping up and down he looks so excited, "So do you guys have a general out line for the organization yet? Location?
"We thought that we would situate it on L-2 and then move out from there, we don't want to try and take on too much too soon."
Quatre nods, "That's a good idea. We can start looking for business location on L-2." He pulls up his own laptop and begins running searches as he talks. "You're right about starting small, but we should set up divisions, you mentioned, education, job preparation and placement, and assistance with food and housing. Those would be three good branches to have with the two of you as directors—"
"The three of us." I interrupted
Quatre glances up, "Duo, you don't have to do that."
"Do what? We don't know what we're doing man, you more of a director than we are." Heero grunts his ascent. "See, even the caveman agrees." I'm rewarded with one of the patented Yuy scowls of death. I grin back at him, "I love you too sweet heart. So three directors, besides, that way if there’s a tie we won’t get dead locked."
Quatre gives me a look, but I know that I've gotten my way when he just shakes his head and goes back to his laptop, "I've found a location that is in the worst area of L-2. Just purchasing that and hiring staff from the area will be a good first step. Once we have a base up and running we can canvas the area and see what's needed." Q glances at me, "Which I think you would be best at. Heero you should start looking into grants, as well as applying for our charity status, and I'll get to work on purchasing the building."
And just like that we have a plan. I love Q.
A few hours latter I'm leaning in the doorway of Heero's room, watching him work. I still can't decide if his desire to do this is an attempt to help him or me. A bit of both perhaps. I sigh internally; I'd been putting off this conversation, but . . .
He glances up at where I've been standing for the last five minuets, it’s unlike me to stay still and silent for so long and he looks slightly worried. I grin at him and saunter into the room. "Hey Ro, you got a minute?" He nods, wordlessly shutting down his laptop and turning to give me his full attention. I clear my throat, suddenly feeling twitchy under his unwavering stare, "So, I wanted to check with you, um . . ." I fight the urge to crack and joke and run, "you said, when you showed up at my place that you were having problems, um, dealing?" He nods again. Seriously, it’s like I'm talking to myself, "So, do you want to, you know, talk about it?"
He nods again. Look at me, Duo the one-man conversationalist. But I trudge on, "You, well, you're not the only one that has had trouble adjusting. Things have been," I smile grimly, "Not real great for me either. And you might be right, yanno? Talking about it might . . . well it might help." He nods again and I finally snap, "Heero, man, the thing about talking is, you actually gotta talk. I mean with words and stuff."
He snorts and rolls his eyes, "You are frustrated by my lack of communications skills?"
I start to respond and then pause, the way he phrased it, it almost sounds as if he was reading it. "Problem you had before?" I venture.
He snorts again and nods, thankfully, however, he also elaborates. "When I worked for Relena it was often a complaint made against me in one form or another."
I thought about that for a moment, "Why don't you talk more?"
For a moment his face just shuts down, what little emotion is just . . . gone. His eyes go dead. And for a moment I am treated to a sight that has been seen by no one but soon to be corpses. It is very, very scary. "Heero?"
And then it’s as if it never happened, his face returns to its neutral expression and he replies, "I've got work to do." Turning back to his laptop.
But I shake my head reaching out to place my hand on the laptop, I'm not stupid enough to try and grab him,” No, nu-uh, Yuy, what the hell just happened?"
He opens his mouth to snarl at me and then just . . . deflates, "Training." He offers in a subdued voice.
My eyes go wide, "Dr. J trained you not to talk? Jesus, why?"
“. . . fortification against capture."
Heero grunts in affirmation and I am suddenly chilled at the prospect. I know what "training" means in Dr. J's dictionary. In the average person's dictionary it would be found under the heading torture.
"Oh Heero." I breathed, horrified that something so, so human, so harmless was taken from him in such a ruthless manor. I move closer, broadcasting my movements so as not to startle him as I sit down on the bed next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "I,” I hesitate, not knowing what to say, how to fix this, "Heero, we should, you need to get help—” I break off when I see him wince, ok right, professional help probably brings up unpleasant associations, "Ok, no, right I got it, um." I am so totally out of my depth here, I've got what, maybe three years of school, and then what Doc. could feed me? I take a deep breath, "Ok. So talking, that's a pretty good place to start, and as we all know, I'm the champ of chatter," I give him one of my most dazzling smiles, trying to lighten the conversation, he doesn't need my pity, he needs my help. He just scowls at me, but there's this little light in the back of his eyes, and if it was anybody else I would call it hope.
* * *
"I am sorry, Agent Chang, if I embarrassed you yesterday." Muhammad says as we make our way toward the village that was decimated yesterday.
I glance at him and shrug. "So what do you know about this village?" I ask, wishing to redirect the conversation elsewhere.
The corners of Muhammad's mouth twitched in suppressed amusement, but he replied, "It is a small town, six hundred people at most. They are farmers, as much as anyone can farm here." He indicates the barren landscape with a sweep of his hand. He is silent for a moment and then says quietly, "They are just like everyone else here, Agent Change, they are poor, uneducated and petty. They make do with what little they have and blame their neighbor that they do not have more."
I nod, it’s familiar enough. "Do you suspect any reason why this village was hit rather than the others?"
"Honestly? I believe that it was simply next on the list. The others will fall soon enough.
When we arrive at the village it is very quite. A handful of women fully robed in the Burka, are making their way between huts, but duck inside upon our arrival and I sigh, "How on earth are we going to talk to any of them?"
Muhammad smiles easily, "Watch and learn." We wandered over to something that looks a bit like a canteen, there is a small boy sweeping the front steps. Muhammad addressed him fluently in the strange and twisty tongue that the natives speak. The boy listens for a moment and then runs inside, reemerging with two glasses filled with a strange brown liquid and ushers us toward a rickety table set up next to the small hut. "This is a type of coffee house, local tavern." Muhammad explains as we take our seats."
"Fascinating. I thought we were trying to get information."
"We are, around here, you don't go to the information, the information comes to you." He rolls his eyes and waves a hand at me, "Sit down agent Chang, you can't very well go banging on people’s doors. We do things differently here."
I grunted as I sat down carefully on the pile of sticks that was attempting, badly, to pass itself off as a chair. I eyed the glass he handed me skeptically, "What is this?"
"Best not to ask." He replied smirking and took a sip, grimacing slightly.
Alarmed, I sniffed mine hesitatingly and then set it down. We sat in silence for several minuets, until my irritation got the better of me. "So you mean to tell me we are just going to sit here until someone comes to talk to us?"
"That's the idea, yes."
"But that could take hours!"
Muhammad looked amused. He took another sip of the revolting drink and asked, "Do you have something more pressing to be doing?"
I opened my mouth and then shut it, this man was an expert here, I reminded myself, "Couldn't we try finding someone to talk to rather than just sitting here?" I grated.
"To whom would you speak? The only people left here are the women. You cannot knock on the door of a Muslim woman and expect her to speak with you. You are not family."
"So why are we even here?"
Muhammad cocked his head at me, "So that, eventually, when they have become accustomed to our presence, someone will speak with us."
I gave up, looked at the drink again and then pulled out my water bottle and took a swig to the accompaniment of Muhammad’s chuckling. "So," Muhammad said as, against all reason, he settled himself more comfortably on his pile of sticks, “Agent Chang, prior to becoming an agent at the Preventers what did you do?"
"I was a Gundum pilot." I replied airily, hoping that it would end the conversation; I didn't really feel like reminiscing.
Muhammad nodded gravely, "I thought as much."
That caught me off guard, "What? Why?"
"I was in China, or rather the area that was once China, when you were there with," he glanced at me
"Ah. With Shenlong, Magnificent creation." He smiled again, "I am please to get the chance to meet you. I thought you very impressive at the time."
An eyebrow rose at that, "We're you not involved in the war?"
Muhammad barked a laughed, his eyes dancing, "Oh, very much so, yes. But it is always a pleasure to see a master at his work."
"You sound like Treize." I commented taking another swig of water to cover my scrutiny of the man across from me. I knew little of him, and it was surprisingly difficult to judge which side he had been on. He didn't seem to have the arrogance of the Treize faction, nor the idiocy of the White fang. Early Oz perhaps, or, if he had been in China one of the rebel factions? But then Sally would have recognized him.
"Do I?' He replied unfazed, "I never met the man. Yes?" He turned addressing the small boy that had seated us. The boy regarded him shyly for a moment and then began speaking very quickly, gesticulating wildly. Muhammad answered from time to time, but mostly he listened. When the boy had finished Muhammad said something to him and then reached into his pocket and produced, to my surprised, several coins. Apparently the Credits system had not yet managed to infiltrate this backwater. The coins were snatch away so quickly it was worthy of Maxwell, and then the boy disappeared. Muhammad watched him leave then stood, stretching. "Well, that should be it."
"What just happened?" I asked, standing as well as Muhammad began moving off in the direction that we had come from.
"He told me about the lady devils that came and killed all the men."
"He did what?"
"The little boy obviously saw what happened, he said there were women robed in black with guns who came and killed the men."
I stopped. "Just like the woman from the tavern."
"Mmmm. It would appear that she was, to some degree, telling the truth. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say that these are some type of vendetta killing."
I thought over that for a moment, “So where dealing with some type of fascist feminism?"
"Something like that, yes."
* * *
"K-bars" I respond promptly, chuckling at the look of disgust that crosses his face.
"Heero, man, you cannot be serious. That's like saying my favorite food is cardboard."
I grunt as I laid down the stack of wood that I'm carrying and picked my water bottle up off the ground, "K-bars are nutritionally balanced, supplying all of the vitamins and minerals the body needs." I inform him after taking a swig.
"Yeah, but they taste like shit."
"Taste is irrelevant."
"To you maybe, but we of the human race appreciate it."
I roll my eyes "You?"
"Yes, me, I'm human."
"No," I growl, starting back for the next load, "What is your favorite food?"
Duo looks pleased that I have asked and I feel something akin to the glow of a mission accomplished. Duo has devised this game of twenty questions as a way to gently work me into the habit of talking. A way to circumvent my training. I shiver, pushing that idea aside as I stack the wood.
"Hmm, that's a tough one." He muses as he gathers up his own load, "you can't go wrong with pizza, but . . ." His eyes glaze over for a moment and despite myself I am intrigued.
"But?" I encourage. Duo actually starts and looks mildly embarrassed; I raise both eyebrows at that, knowing just how difficult it is to embarrass him.
"Steak. I've only had it a few times, but, damn, it was amazing."
The laugh catches me off guard almost as much as it catches Duo, "So steak for dinner." I say, grinning at the happy flush that has spread across his face.
"Ro, you don't gotta—
"But I want to." I interrupt. I glance down at the huge pile of two by fours that we have created and then glance back to shout up at Rashid, "Do you guys need anymore at the moment?"
Rashid, who is perched precariously on the top of the building that will become our headquarters once we've finished renovating it, glances over the side, "No." He booms, "That should be enough for the moment, thank you. Master Quatre has just arrived, you should see to him."
I nod briskly and start heading in that direction when Duo asks, running up next to me, "Favorite color."
I blink and then shrug, not breaking stride "None."
"Ah c'mon Ro, you gotta have a favorite color."
"I dunno, it’s a rule or something. Like me, mine's black."
I snort, there's a surprise. I think about it for a moment and then shrug again, "Green."
Duo grins, "There see was that so hard?"
No, but I just made it up on the spot. I really don't understand the concept. Beyond the use as camouflage color is of little significance to me. I'm fairly certain that Duo knows this, but he presses on regardless. "That explains the tank top anyway."
I look at him blankly for a moment and then roll my eyes, "You're never going to let that go are you. And this from the man who dressed like a priest. During a war."
Duo laughs, "I was making a point. And can I help it if I see the need to question a kid who runs around in spandex for the better part of a year? S'not natural is all."
I just shake my head, turning to hail Quatre who is striding toward us, he waves glancing up toward the roof with a frown on his face at the sound of a bitten off exclamation and what sounds suspiciously like laughter. Duo grins, "You know Q, these guys are even better than I remember."
"Oh, don't get them started Duo." He admonishes, grinning, "All I need is another Practical Joke War. Rashid's hair is only just getting back to its natural shade."
Duo does his impression of a stranded gold fish, "Wha—seriously." He grins evilly and I shudder.
"Quatre," I warn, "That was a very unintelligent thing to say to Duo."
But he just chuckles, changing the subject, "Our status is official. Thanks to Heero." He nods at me, "Although, as fast as this went, I have to ask just one more time, you're sure that you didn't just hack in and give us the status?" His tone is light but he's serious so I answer him in kind.
"I called Relena and asked if she couldn't speed up the process."
He and Duo exchange a knowing glance and I feel myself grinding my teeth, "I'm not involved with her." I snap bringing their wide-eyed attention back to me.
"Ah, sorry Ro, we just—um . . ." Duo trails off uncertainly glancing at Quatre for help
Quatre, ever the diplomat, apologizes smoothly, "We're sorry Heero, we should not have jumped to conclusions. Please accept our apologies."
I just growl again and shrug uncomfortably, "So we got the status." I redirected.
"Yes," Quatre continued easily, "and according to Rashid the reconstruction should be finished in a few weeks time. We're ahead of schedule actually, so I might be sending you out into the field a bit earlier than we anticipate, Duo."
He grins happily. "Sounds good to me." He chirps and I realize that he some how managed to lift my water bottle. I blink and look down at my empty hand. How . . .?
Quatre, unaware, nods. "Good. Well I'll let you get back to work. I'm going to head in and coordinate with Rashid.
We watch as Quatre disappears into the building and then I turn but my question is cut off in the face of Duo's retreating braid. When I catch up with him he's just finishing the bottle off. "That's mine you know."
He flashes a grin at me, "You're right." He agrees amiably and hands me the now empty water bottle, "You'll want to throw that away then."
"Duo, how . . .?"
He chuckles darkly, "I spent my formative years as a pick pocket. You either got real good real fast or you starved. Talk about incentive."
"But it was in my hand"
Duo threw back his head and howled with laughter, "Ah, Ro, you're great you know that? C'mon lets go see if we can't play with some power tools!"
* * *
The Brothels of South East Asia—now known as Tiane province— are famous. They cater to both homegrown clients and tourist from every part of the globe. Providing, for a price, any and all pleasures that their well paying patrons can dream off. The secret of the Brothels success is getting their girls hooked on a variety of narcotics from as young an age as possible. Because of this the girls don’t even want to run away, despite the atrocities preformed on them on a daily basis.
Wu P’ang looked up from his tally ledger as Li Fang entered his office.
“What’s the estimate?” Li enquired.
Wu frowned, “We’re down a quarter. I told you it was a bad idea start using meth.”
Li shrugged, “it’s better than opium. They’re more lively at least.”
“Yes but they crash twice as hard.” He frowned, “And they keep over dosing.”
Li waved it away, “We’ll figure out the dosage for the younger ones in time. Look it’s not as if we’ve got a shortage of girls and we’re keeping the more expensive ones on opium until we can figure out the dosing. Quit your worrying.”
Wu rolled his eyes and looked back down at his ledger when a sound made him glance up, “What was that?”
Li frowned, listening. “I’m not sure.” He opened the door and stuck his head out into the corridor. A body lay on the floor. He let out and exclamation and rushed to the man’s side heaving him over, “Oh, fuck—P’ang it’s Sargon. Help me!”
Wu hurred over to him and stooped to take Sargon’s pulse and shook his head, “He’s dead.”
Li snorted, “Yeah the bullet hole I his head tipped me off, “Shit, call security.”
Wu swayed slightly at the sight of the blood trickling out of the man’s head. “Right.” He said thickly and hurried back to his office. “Oh hell, Fang. Fang the line is dead!” Cried Wu.
“Shit.” Fang said vehemently. “Come on.” They hurried out of the office toward the weapons stock. Violence was so common that it had become something of a non-issue in the brothel trade. As they approached the weapon room Li fished in his pocket for the key and then stopped. The door was ajar. They moved towards it cautiously then Wu stumbled backward quickly, turning to wretch. Li, mouth tight turned towards him, trying to blot the sight of the carnage from his mind. “This has to be the Pagoda.” He named a rival brothel, “Only those bastards are sick enough pull this off.”
With Wu leaning on him heavily they fled the stench of blood and excrement, stumbling out into the street, but rather than subsiding the smell intensified. “Oh,” Wu moaned, “Oh God its judgment.” Cars were left stranded in the street their driver handing out their heads pieced through with bullet holes. Dead men lay strewn about the streets, lying in pools of their own blood.
Wu gagged and wretched again, dry heaving as Li struggled to keep him up right. “Wu, damn it. Pull yourself together. We’ve got to get out of here before it’s too late.”
“It already is.”
Li’s head jerked up violently and he saw to his confusion, Me Li, one of his newly acquired girls. He’d though her a prize at the time, one of the most beautiful and thus expensive he’d ever owned. She was holding a gun and was backed by two figures dressed entirely in black. She leveled the gun at him.”
“What is this?” He sneered at her, “Revenge? You’ll be back on the street in a week. I was good to you. What are you going to do when you need your next fix and can’t get it?”
She smiled and something in the smile told Li that he had made a vast error in judgment. The moment seemed to slow and he saw as thousands of the black clad figures began to emerge out onto the street. They appeared from behind buildings, parked cars, and trees—even the very air itself. And then there was an army standing before him, armed and silent. And in that moment his mind seemed to stretch out and he heard the silence all the way to in the Capital as cars and computers wound down to a stand still as the men who had powered them were silenced. The bustle of the market and the cry of the street vendors were loud in the their absence and without knowing how Li understood that he was staring at the leaders of revolution that he hadn’t even know existed.
“Oh—oh god.” He sputtered. Me Li’s smile widened, she knew that he understood. She walked toward him slowly, picking her way carelessly through the carnage. She put the gun to his forehead and whispered, “We’ll get the girls of the drugs you bastard. And then we take them and then we’ll train them. Welcome to the new world order.” And she fired.
* * *
"Devil women." Sally said for the fifth time.
Muhammad merely nods mutely from where he is cleaning his gun.
"I'm not really sure what I’m supposed to do with that Muhammad." Riker grumbles as she emerges from her rooms, blood shot eyes a silent testament to her long night. Muhammad glances up, his face taking on a worried expression at the sight of his commander as he starts to stand to attention. She waves him down again. "Where’s Marshall?"
"He's gone on a supply run." I offer, not looking up from my laptop.
"I hope he gets more vodka." She muses, "Alright troops, here's the news, either we've got a copy cat in Terian, or they've started there as well.” My gut tightens at the information. A third locus the area once known as Southeast Asia. Too close, much to close to my ancestral home. “If we do not do something soon this could spread to the entire Asian continent.” So tell me, Muhammad, that you've got something for me, cause the Commander is ready to kill me."
Muhammad inclined his head slightly, "We," he says, indicating me, "were able to verify that the killers, or at least some of them, are women, who dress entirely in black, this corroborates my earlier information. It is my assumption that these are some type of vendetta killing as all of the attacks have taken place in regions hostile towards women. They enter the village heavily armed and move systematically from house to house, the young man that reported as much said that they appeared out of no where and returned the same way."
"Nowhere." Riker repeated dully, "Well, at least it's something." Pinching the bridge of her nose she asks, "Alight does anyone have anything else?"
"I've been tracking radical feminist organization’s funding and possible suppliers. There are two that might be working as a front for them, 'Woman Warriors' and 'Action NoW.' When taken together they have amassed a great deal of financial support and it could, with augmentation gained else where, be enough to fund such an operation."
"Good." Riker nods, "Now we're gettin' some where. Ok lads, here's the plan, Muhammad do you think you can get anything more out of the village?"
"I can try."
"Alright, you head back tomorrow see if you can't get a bit more detail on where these women came from, and if you can't trace them back. Sally, you go with him, and I know it’s a pain but I’ll need you to dress appropriately so we can maybe get you in to talk to some of the other women again, now that you've got somewhere to go with it. Chang you're going to keep following up your lead, I want you to trace their money usage back oh, five years and see if you can't pick up a pattern."
There are nods all around and a general since of relief that we've got something to work with, even if it isn't that much. We glance up at the sound of a jeep pulling up, tensing slightly until we hear the familiar tred of Marshall's heavy boots. The door bangs open and he walks in grinning.
"Don look so happy ta see me." He booms at our tense expressions. He sets down a few sacs of groceries and turns to head back out when he stops and pulls out a battered and much folded envelope from one back pocket. "Muhammad, I run into Alvar when I was in da village, he give me dis to give to you."
Muhammad’s eyebrows rose but he took the letter without comment and opened it, reading over it quickly.
"Who's Alvar?" Sally asked curiously, echoing my own unasked question
"An old lover of mine." Muhammad replied without looking up, so he didn’t see the stunned look on both of our faces, Marshall did, however, and whooped with laughter causing Muhammad to look up and frown slightly, "Is that a problem?"
"Wha—No!" Sally protested, "It was just, I didn't—" She cleared her throat glaring at me as I chuckled at her discomfort, "It's a surprise." She finished, shooting me another glare.
Muhammad raised an eyebrow, but declined further comment. "So what does he say?" Marshall asked returning with the last load of groceries, "He seemed edgy to me. Nervous."
Muhammad nodded, "As he should. He says that he has information about the assassins."
All heads turned, zeroing in on the letter.
“Praise fucking god.” Ricker sighed, sitting down at the table and pulling an apple from a pile of fruit. “I knew I always liked him. Good man, that Alvar.”
"Why would he have that?" I asked suspiciously.
"Because he works in the government here.” He replied evenly, “And Riker you hated Alvar.” He remarked as he scaned over the letter once again, then turning to Marshall, “He wants to meet tomorrow, around noon.”
Marshall nodded. “I can go wid you. No problem.” They glance at Riker and she nods
“Fuck yes, go. It’s the only solid bloody lead we’ve got.”
“I will as well.” I volunteered, smirking slightly at Muhammad’s look of surprise.
He recovered quickly however, glancing at Riker who shruged, nodding her ascent, “Very well. The three of us shall go then. We shall leave at zero five hundred. It’ll be a long drive.”
* * *
“Is the orphanage where you got your last name?” I regret the question almost immediately at the stricken look that crossed over Duo’s face. And I had been doing so well, I sighed internally. “I’m sorry Duo—” I began in an attempt to backpedal but he held up a hand.
“How did . . . what orphanage?”
“The other day when you showed me you’re old neighborhood, there was an orphanage there, called the Maxwell orphanage.” I explained hesitantly. He nodded slowly, the look on his face is of tightly controlled pain and I want to hit something. I hate myself for putting it there. “I apologize. It’s none of my concern.” I try, unsuccessfully, to salvage the conversation.
But Duo lets out a breath and shakes his head, “No, no it’s ok, I just, I wasn’t expecting it, yanno?” He sighs, resting his head on the back of the booth, suddenly becoming engrossed the ceiling of the steakhouse. “I spent a very small, but very happy portion of my youth as a resident of the Maxwell Church. The orphanage sits on its ruins.”
“Ah.” Well done Yuy.
“Stop beating yourself up, you couldn’t have known.” He remarks, still staring at the ceiling, he glances at me and shrugs, clearly dismissing the conversation. “So on to happier topics, or more interesting ones at any rate. Question for you, you’re really not with Relena? ”
“No.” It comes out colder than I’d like it to but Duo seems unfazed.
“Dose she know that?”
It surprises me to laughter and I can see him grinning, finally I shake my head, “No? Maybe? I’m really not sure. I’m in no condition to enter into any type of relationship. I’ve yet to find a way to say as much to her.”
“Beyond ‘I’m going to kill you’?”
I snort, “That only seemed to pique her interest.”
Duo takes a sip of his beer and ponders that for a moment. “Kinky.” He pronounces finally, “Who knew the princess had it in her.”
An idea suddenly occurs to me and I ask, “Have you ever been in one? A relationship?”
It’s his turn to snort, “Not the type you’re talking about. I’ve messed around when I was on the sweeper ship, guys letting of steam and shit like that. Growing up on the street doesn’t really incline a person towards romance.” He shrugs, but his voice is surprisingly calm, lacking any trace of bitterness. “You?”
I shake my head, “Never. I wouldn’t even know where to being.”
“Belt buckle.” Duo replies with a wicked grin and I roll my eyes, fighting back an answering smile.
We’re quiet for a moment as I digest that. “So,” I finally venture, “You were with other men?”
Duo chokes on the sip of beer that he’s just taken; when he finally quits coughing he gives me a watery glare, “You know, you could warn a guy before you say things like that.” I start to apologize and he waves it away, “I was never with one, in the, you know, biblical sense.” He takes in my uncomprehending expression and says, “I’ve never had sex with one. I had a guy go down on me a couple of times. I returned the favor. That was about it.”
“So you find men attractive?” I press, curious.
Duo hesitates for a moment, “Uh, honestly I never really gave it much thought. They were there, I was there. More an act of convenience than anything else. But if you’re asking about now,” he shrugs, “I dunno. It’s not really been my focus.” He regards me for a moment, Violet eyes inscrutable, and then asks, “Why the sudden interest?”
I shrug, “part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder claims either a complete lack of sexual interest or an over indulgence. I believe that I suffer from the former.”
“You don’t even jack off?” Again I am forced to display my ignorance, “masturbate.” Duo elaborates.
Ah, “Upon occasion. Not frequently.” His eyebrows shoot up but he refrains from comment. “I take it you do?”
Laughing he replies, “Fuck yes!” he grins lasciviously at me for a moment and then shrugs, “Helps me sleep.”
He sighs, “What is it with you and the tough questions tonight? Yeah, nightmares. You?”
I nod, “I don’t remember most of them. But it’s rare that I get through the night without waking up violently.”
“You’re lucky.” He grimaces, “I wish I didn’t remember mine.”
I’m silent for a moment, “There is one that I remember.” I offer hesitantly.
He nods his encouragement, “When I was . . .” I stop, trying to gather my thoughts; I have never vocalized this to anyone. It is . . . difficult. “I met a little girl once. Early on in my training. She was out with a, with a puppy. Mari. We spoke, briefly. Later that night, I had a mission . . . go south.” My eyes slide away from his as the now familiar acid taste of failure floods my mouth. “I miscalculated the explosive ratio . . . it took out a civilian complex across the street.” Duo makes a sympathetic noise. He knows what it means. We all strove to avoid civilian casualties. Some times they were inevitable. That did not make them forgivable. “I found her among the ashes.”
“That sucks.” To someone who had not lived it, it would seem insufficient. But it is heartfelt and there is more there than just the words. Understanding. Commiseration. And I understand now why it was suggested that I seek out and speak with others of like experiences.
“Do you think the others have the same problems? The nightmares?”
He frowns thoughtfully, “I dunno. I bet Q does. With Tro and Wu? Who knows?”
“Did you work much with either of them?”
He shakes his head, “Nah, not really. I was with Wu on the Lunar base, you remember? When they tried to suffocate us?” But he spent the entire time, being, well him.” He grins ruefully, “Yanno, all arrogant and disdainful of us mere mortals? He was dedicated to his condescension. Gotta give’em credit for that.” He sighs, “Good ol Wu. We should ask Q though. We could have, I dunno, group talks or something.” He shrugs uncomfortably, toying with the remnants of his vegetables, the steak long since devoured. “I gotta say,” he blurts out after a moment, “that I’m really damn glad that you came to see me. It took a lotta guts to come out here and, well, talk about all this.”
“It was the logical thing to do.” I shrug, but find myself pleased nonetheless for his praise, it had been hard. Harder than I’d thought it would be, but in the end? “I’d become almost nonfunctional. I had to do something.”
He nods, “yeah, but you did the right thing. Lotta guys, they just ignore it and let themselves rot, or crawl into the bottle and stay there.”
I eye him speculatively, “Or work themselves to death?”
He blanches slightly and then his face turns the most interesting shade of red, it clashes horribly with his eyes. He clears his throat loudly. “Or yes, work themselves to death. Tell me, were you this hard on Tro when he tried to help fix you up?”
“I’m not sure, having been unconscious for most of it. Probably.” I reply blandly.
“Glad to know it’s not just me then. You ready to go? I’ve got to get an early start if I’m gonna go canvas.”
“Yes.” I hesitated for a moment trying to determine how best to phrase my next question, and then give up and go for blunt. “I’m going to come with you.” I see him start to object. “You need me. That area still affects you too deeply.”
He looks like he’s going to try and argue anyway but then changes his mind, “Fine by me, but you can’t scare the locals, which means no growling and no glares of death.”
“I will endeavor not to frighten the populace any more than necessary.”
“It’ll have to do.”
* * *
“He’s late.” Marshall commented as we sat waiting at the appointed place for Alvar to make his appearance.
“Great, he’s probably dead.” I remark dourly.
Both of them turn and regarded me for a moment, Marshall looking mildly shocked and Muhammad’s face unreadable. Belatedly I remembered that this Alvar was supposed to be a past love interest of Muhammad’s. They exchanged looks and Marshall broke out laughing, “You know someting, you da most pessimistic bastard I know. An I’m includin’ Capin Riker.”
Muhammad chuckled, “And that’s saying something.” He shaded his eyes for moment, “there he is.”
A small, dark man in a turban approaches the table were we’re waiting. He looks nervously from Marshall to me, his eyes finally coming to rest on Muhammad and his shoulders relax ever so slightly. He drops down in the seat next to him. “You’ve got to get me out of the country.” He begins without preamble, “They’re not going to stop until every last one of us is dead!”
Muhammad’s eyes flick from Alvar to the street, searching and then back to the man’s haggard face. “I can’t make any promises Alvar. Start from the beginning.”
“I was—I was on assignment to—to Terian when they attacked. When I came upon the first body,” His eyes closed briefly and he muttered something in the local dialect, “I hid. I knew what was happening. I’d seen what’d happened here! I saw them. There—there were hundreds of them!”
“Alvar, calm down.” Muhammad soothed, his eyes still scanning the street “I need details. Uniform, insignia of any kind?”
“They—”pausing, he nodded, taking a deep breath. “No. They were dressed entirely in black. And the way they moved! I thought,” he glanced nervously at Muhammad, “I thought they might be like you?” There was a sharp intake of breath from Marshall, and he and Muhammad exchanged worried glances.
“What do you mean? Like Muhammad?” I asked, baffled.
But Muhammad silenced me with a gesture. “Why do you think they might have been like me?”
“They moved without a sound! All I head was the sound of silencers. I could see through the gap in the closet I was in.” He was shaking now. His words had an erratic, unconnected quality, “They killed everyone! Everyone but the women. I didn’t dare come out or they would have killed me to! You have to understand there was nothing I could do!”
“Alvar it’s ok. Calm down.” Muhammad tried again to calm him; he and Marshall exchanged another series of glances. Suddenly Marshall nodded and stood, heading swiftly towards where we had parked the jeep.
“We need to get him out of here.” He explained quietly. “Alvar, we’re going to take you with us, ok? But I need you to calm down. You’re attracting too much attention.”
Alvar took a shuddering breath. “T-thank you.”
Muhammad placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, “It’ll be ok. You’ll see.”
The Jeep pulled to a stop and we climbed in quickly, once we were clear of the city, Muhammad put in a call to Riker.
“Yeah, we’ve got him. His in a pretty bad way but he should be ok . . . .not much more than we already knew I’m afraid, but perhaps with a bit more time and a more secure location to question him . . .understood.” He closed the phone and glanced at the two of us. “Riker sends her love.” Marshall snorted, “And she says to take the long way round. Just to be on the safe side.”
Marshall nods, aiming the jeep in a more southerly direction than we had previously been taking. “The long way around?” I query, watching the compass on the dash of the Jeep.
“We have a couple of bases besides the hut. She’s going to meet us at one of them, that way we don’t have to be seen brining him into the village. You’ll be safer there.” He explains, turning to Alvar who nods once. “Get some sleep,” he advises, “It’ll be along ride and you look like you could use it.” Alvar gives a strained chuckle and then settles back in the Jeep. Within a few moments he’s snoring quietly and Muhammad smiles fondly.
I wait until Alvar’s breathing evens out, in indication of deep sleep and then turn to Muhammad, “What did he mean? Like you?”
Muhammad’s eyes shift from the sleeping form of Alvar to mine, inscrutable as always. He seems to think over the question finally answering, “I was trained by several shadow governments as an assassin. I’m very good.”
Marshall snorts, “Dat’s da understatement of the century mon. He’s a scary fucker. No doubt about it.”
“Thank you Marshall.” He chuckles.
“Do you think that theses women might have been trained by the same people?”
“No. The groups that had a hand in training me are long since dead.” He sighs, “Which means that we are, more or less, back where we started.”
* * *
I smell smoke. And burning flesh. My stomach rolls but I force myself to keep going. I ignore the pain as my feet are scalded through my flimsy, second hand shoes. I have to see what my brain refuses to believe. I pick my way carefully, my hands, face and hair singed by the floating ash. Fragments of stain glass litter the ground, as they catch the light of the dieing fires they make the ruins look as if they’re bleeding. None of it matters. They are dead. All of them.
I find Sister Helen lying in a pool of her own blood. Her eyelids flutter and she gasps in renewed pain and then they snap open. The whites are lost to burst blood vessels but the blue remains untouched. They lock on me. I reach for her. It’s like moving through quicksand.
She smiles beatifically at me, she is going to join her God and there is nothing that I can do. With her last breath she uttered two words: “Your fault.”
I slam upright, chest heaving, body drenched in sweat. I stumbled to the bathroom just in time to vomit up the remains of tonight’s makeshift dinner. When the heaving stops I slide down onto the floor and wait for the next round that I know will be along shortly.
Well thank you subconscious that was lovely. I shift, tying to get more comfortable on the cold tiles. The burning of the Church was not my fault. Intellectually I know this. There was not time to retaliate for the suit that I stole. I realized that, oh, years ago now. It is much more likely the rebel faction that had taken the church in the first place had gotten antsy and deicide to cut their losses. Intellectually I know all this. Unfortunately my subconscious has yet to get with the program. I move back over the toilet as my stomach starts in on round two. I’ve nothing left to throw up so I get to dry heave for the next ten minuets. Joy. Finally, I move to the sink and wash out my mouth. I debate the merits of coffee but my stomach makes disquieting noises at the idea so I pull on my boots and head out into the yard.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I jump, my hand moving automatically to the crow bar that I keep at my side before the voice even registers. I see Heero standing in the doorway, sporting an impressive case of bed head. I smile slightly, “I suppose it’s my turn.” I try for bravado but it falls flat. I sigh and gesture for him to have a seat as I flip the radio off. I’d thought that I’d kept it quiet enough, apparently not.
I sit not quite facing him, my hands finding the end of my braid. “I was taken into the Church when I was eight. Well I say I was eight, I don’t really know.” Heero nods in understanding, and I realize, belatedly, that he doesn’t know when he was born either. It’s . . . comforting, in a weird and completely dysfunctional way. I have to smile. “I’d grown up on the street, running with local gangs. Having a home was . . . I liked it.” I see Heero nod again out of the corner of my eye. “I didn’t stay there very long, about five years or so. I was never what you’d call adoptable. Too many demons, even then.” I shrug off the echo of the buried pain of being so totally unwanted. “But the people at the church were nice to me. Kind, when there was no one else. Rebels took the Church. Father Maxwell was a pacifist, he refused to fight them or aid them in anyway. I wasn’t so principled. I offered to get them a mobile suit if they’d leave us alone, while I was off . . . acquiring it,” I chuckle darkly, “the Church was razed to the ground. For a very long time I blamed myself. I know, you know, here,” I tap my head, “that it wasn’t my fault. But deep down?” I shrug, “it would seem, at least subconsciously, that I can’t let that blame go.” I shake my head.
We are silent for a very long time. I watch the play of the streetlight off the harsh metal of the scrap and wonder at the lives that have brought us here. So much pain, so many demons. Fuck. This is why I don’t do the introspective thing.
“Come on.” I look up at the hand being held out to me, “You need to get some sleep.”
I shake my head, “Nah, I’m done for the night. Day.” I add belatedly as the first tinge of the artificial predawn beings to light the sky.
“You need the sleep.” He presses.
I eye him uncertainly but suddenly I’m too exhausted to argue. I rise heavily and let him lead me back to my room. He lies down on the floor and I’m too tired to put up a fight this time. I’m already half asleep as I slide under the covers and slip into oblivion. To my very great surprise I don’t dream.
We had been questioning Alvar more or less non-stop for the last two days. Unfortunately, we had produced little beyond what we already knew.
"Think!" Riker barked as she paced back and forth irritably, her footsteps loud in the underground base. "You said that there were hundreds of them! They couldn't simply have vanished they had to go somewhere!"
Alvar looked on in deepening despair, he glanced from Riker's agitated form to where I was seated at the camp table, "I told you everything I know." He repeated wearily.
"Tell us again." I demanded, knowing it to be most likely futile but frustrated that this so promising of a lead had dried up so quickly.
He sighed. "I was on the way back to my room when I found a small group of guards huddled around a body." He began again, recounting that night for the hundredth time, "When they spotted me they ordered me back to my room."
"Why weren't there more guards?" Riker challenged, “This was an Embassy for Christ's sake."
Alvar looked irritated at the interruption, "Because it was the night shift." I opened my mouth to object when he continued, his eyes locked on mine, “As I said previously," he stressed the word previously, his tone edged with frustration, "The toilet facilities in my room were non functional. It was the middle of the night. I was seeking access to one down the hall."
Riker nodded sharply and gestured for him to continue, "So, when they saw me, being short handed, they ordered me back to my room to wait. I can only surmise that they had just stumbled upon the body as well, or presumably there would have been more people involved. Anyway, they ordered me away but, as I said, I knew what was really happening. I panicked." His faced tightened at the admission. "I fled to a supply closet that I knew of thanks to my previous experience from when maintenance had tried—and failed—to fix my toilet. For a very long time there was nothing,” He smiled miserably, "I even started to leave a couple of times, thinking I'd overreacted, but then, suddenly there was the sound of a group moving, and the little light that showed through the cracks in the door was blotted out. Then came another group. And still another. And the repeated sounds of silencers. And bodies hitting the floor," he added darkly, "Finally I got up the nerve to move closer to the door. Through the cracks I could see groups of, what I eventually realized were women. Fifteen to twenty women, dressed entirely in black, passing by every few minuets. They were heavily armed. Eventually it began to slow down and then silence. Just as I was about to come out I heard a voice, female, say "All clear." She spoke in English. I froze my hand on the door. She was so close, she must have been just outside." He was shaking again, his eyes distant, the veneer that he had been able to maintain since our arrival at the secluded Base cracking as he allowed himself to relive the moment as he had not done in previous tellings. "Then, I remember there was this strange noise, a kind of," he struggled for a word, frowning, "like a humming sound then . . . nothing. I—"
"What do you mean, humming noise?" I glanced over at where Muhammad's head had snapped up suddenly, his eyes narrowed.
Alvar started slightly, seemingly having forgotten that Muhammad was there. He frowned again, "It was— I've never really heard anything like it really. It was almost like you would imagine what a dog whistle would sound like if it were made audible. It made the inside of my ears tingle. That's the best way I can describe it."
"You didn't mention this before." Muhammad pressed.
Alvar shrugged, his control returned and I could see why the man made a good bureaucrat "I'd forgotten about it. It didn't seem that important next to heavily armed and homicidal women after my blood. Is it?"
"It could be." Muhammad said vaguely as he stood up from the crouch he'd been in for the last hour. My knees twinge in sympathy but he showed no sign of discomfort. Strangely I was reminded of Yuy. Trust me to fall in with another masochist. He'll be setting his own bones next, I thought grimly. Muhammad crossed to his laptop and began searching through files. Finally a strange sound filled the room and Alvar's head shot up.
"That's it!" He exclaimed wide eyed,”What in the name of Allah is it?"
Muhammad sighed, "It’s the sound of a teleporter."
The room went silent, "A what mate?" Riker finally asked
"Teleporter." He sighed again, "You've seen Star Trek yes?" The concept of teleporting from one place to another?"
I scowled, "That's never been achieved."
Muhammad laughed hollowly, "Oh, it was. To a very limited extent. But the project was abandoned before the knowledge became widely known."
Riker and I exchanged glances and then she said, "Muhammad, mate, you wanna fill in the missing bits here?"
Muhammad began typing quickly as he spoke, "Prior to the assassination of Heero Yuy, a cabal of scientist were working toward, "he stopped for a moment, his fingers pausing mid stroke, "world domination just sounds so trite” he shook his head, "The group was composed of members from several colonies, their location a roving one, moving from colony to colony to avoid detection. Their desire, however, to launch any type of large scale attack on earth was thwarted by the fact that any martial movement they made would be anticipated due to the inability to move such a large scale strike force to earth undetected. In answer to this problem they set out to actualize the idea of teleportation thus enabling them to move troops almost instantaneously and take Earth by surprise." Muhammad's hands paused briefly as his computer beeped, he scanned down the information on the page and then continued, "With the assassination of Heero Yuy, however, the time table was increased and teleportation, the limited progress that had been made, as well as several other nacient projects were abandoned in favor of a," His lips curled, "More direct route."
Riker, Sally and I were staring at Muhammad in shock. The sudden silence of the Base was loud. "You're talking about Project Meteor." I said finally, breaking the silence.
He nodded, "One of the many variants, yes."
"How do you know all this?" Sally ask, clearly bewildered. I found myself equally unsure. I had known little about Project Meteor, not having been the original Pilot chosen. I remember my shocked outrage at the idea of dropping the Colony on Earth. What else could the bastards have organized and been unable to implement?
Muhammad shrugged, "I make it my business to know."
"You always were a cagey bastard." Alvar said harshly. I glanced at him in surprise, the look on Alvar's face, dark anger and frustration, was at odds to the trusting and almost gentle way in which Muhammad had handled him during his public break down. I shook myself slightly, giving an internal shrug. Best not think about it, I admonished myself. It just goes to show that relationships muddle everything, regardless of location or sexual preference.
Muhammad ignored him, turning to Riker, "The intellectual property rights to the teleportation technology have fallen to the remnants of that Cabal." He glanced at his computer screen, "a Dr.s Richards and Avlez. It is my suggestion that we head to L2 and tack down these last two survivors and ask them some very serious and possibly painful questions."
Riker smiled grimly, "I like that idea." She glanced at us, "Pack up troops. We're moving out. We'll radio for Marshall to meet us at the air strip."
"I am not going with you." Alvar protested as Muhammad manhandled him onto the plane and into one of the seats. "I have no desire to go to L2 and follow up this insanity, just drop me in Brussels—
"We can't do that Alvar." Muhammad said mildly, buckling him in "Think. There has to be at least one or two leaks in the ESUN government, other wise this wouldn't be possible. We don't know whom to trust. To whom would we turn you over?"
"I should think it clear that any man would be sufficient." He shot back
Muhammad sighed and turned to Marshall, "You speak his language," he gestured to Alvar, "You explain it to him."
Marshall pulled himself up to his full, and very impressive six foot seven inches height. His tattoos prominent as he crossed his massively muscled arms over his equally muscled expanse of chest, he came to loom menacingly over the seated Alvar, "You're commin' wid us mon. De only way dat you gonna get to Brussels is if we drop you out of da plan as we fly over. An I be very tempted.” He growled.
"You are safer to us dead mate, I wouldn't tempt him on the matter." Riker pointed out cheerfully from the cockpit. "Now any more complaints before we get this show on the road?" There was sullen silence from Alvar as the rest of us buckled ourselves into our seats. "Fantastic."
We had been traveling in total silence for almost three hours, when, nearing the refueling station in Spain before we made the switch from plane to shuttle, Sally finally spoke up, "Muhammad, why L2?"
He glanced up from his laptop, "Of the colonies it’s still the easiest to disappear on. According to my sources the last sighting of Dr. Avlez was on the colony cluster L2-3456 that was over six months ago now, but it's the best we've got to work with at the moment."
Sally nodded thoughtfully, "What about Dr. Richards?"
"He's been out of the picture for longer, but his last sighting was also on an L2 cluster. Whether either of them is still there is questionable but it will give me somewhere to pick up the trail."
"Da people on L2 ain't exactly known for their hospitality mon, I hope you con find what you be looking for."
The corner of Muhammad’s mouth twitched, "Your confidence in me is touching."
I snorted, "He'll be fine. He's as twisty as Maxwell."
This surprised a laugh from Sally and a raised eyebrow from Muhammad, I just shrugged.
"Who be dis Maxwell den?" Marshall queried, turning around in his seat to face us.
Sally was still chuckling when she answered, "He's a friend of ours that has," she snickered, "A decidedly different world view than Agent Chang. Don't worry Muhammad, take it as a compliment."
Muhammad inclined his head slightly, smiling, "So I shall. Thank you agent Chang."
* * *
“Duo this is very thorough.” Quatre said approvingly as he looked over the information that Duo and I spent the last three weeks gathering.
“Thanks Q.” Duo chirped, flashing him a cheeky grin.
It is good to see him so relaxed. He has fairly radiated tension for the last few weeks. After finding him in the yard for the third time, I stopped letting him sleep out on the couch, forcing him to sleep in his own bed so that I could wake him before the nightmares took hold. He objected at first, but as the nightmares began to lessen I think he was glad for it. He certainly looks better than he has in weeks, really since we started canvassing. He’s been eating better as well which, at the very least, has caused the Schbeiker woman to stop threatening me with castration. Improvements all around. I do understand her concern however, and as I watch Duo laugh and joke with Quatre I am reminded of a conversation that I had with her about a week into the project.
“Yuy, we need to talk. Now.” I turned to find Hilde Schbeiker standing in the doorway to the kitchen, an angry frown on her face. “Yuy, I know you’ve got problems.” She said bluntly, “And I’m glad that you’re trying to work them out. Truly. But did it ever occur to you that maybe Duo isn’t ready to work on his problems yet? Huh? And that your being here, and dragging him into all this shit, is just making things worse? Did that ever even occur to you before you just showed up here and expected him to somehow fix you?”
“Duo was unhappy.” I stated firmly, “ignoring it will only make it worse.”
“Oh my God.” She threw her hands up in the air in frustration, “that is so easy for you to say. But I’m the one watching her best friend fall apart, here Yuy! He’s not ready for this, goddamn it! And I swear, if he has one more nightmare I’m going to rip off your balls and feed them to you. War hero or not. Do you understand?”
“Hn.” I’d left at that point, not seeing any reason to continue the conversation.
Latter that night I overheard a conversation between her and Duo, she was obviously trying to convince Duo to turn me out.
“Hil are you nuts?! No, I’m not gonna kick him out! He came here for help!”
“Duo, can’t you see that this is killing you!” Came Schbeiker’s exasperated reply
“Hil I’m fine, ok. Yes, I’m having more nightmares than usual but I’m working through it. I can’t hide forever. And one day I’d actually like a shot at some kind of life, yanno. I’ve got to deal with it Hil. Might as well be now as latter.”
She sighed, “Duo, I understand that, I do. But you need professional—no don’t make that face at me! This is not the kind of thing that you can just bully your way through. Duo, look at me. When I got out of the service, I went to this lady shrink for a couple of months, to try and get my head strait. It really helped me work through a lot of things. I want you to go see her.”
“Hil I’m not—
“Just once. I want you to go just once. For me, for my piece of mind. Duo I’m begging here. I can’t stand to see you doing this to yourself.” There were tears in her voice now, “Duo please this isn’t healthy. You could just be making things worse! Go see her. Please.”
“Ok.” Duo’s voice sounded slightly muffled, and when I slipped my head around the corner I saw that he had pulled Schbeiker into a hug and was talking into the top of her head, “Ok, I’ll set up an appointment. But just one.”
At that point I had deemed it prudent to make a silent and rapid retreat. Initially I had worried about the implications of Schbeiker’s concerns, but ultimately dismissed them. I was right. Duo was unhappy, and ignoring it, as Schbeiker seemed content to do, was merely enabling him.
My attention returned to the present as Quatre snapped his laptop shut and stretched. “I think that about wraps everything up for the moment. I’m starving, do you guys want to get some dinner?”
“Sounds good to me.” Duo agreed, “What about you Ro? You up for something?”
“Yes.” I turned to Quatre, “We owe you a meal and a movie.”
Quatre blinked, clearly confused, and Duo laughed, I am surprised by how relived I am to hear him do so, and I have to wonder at the feeling. Perhaps I have been feeling guilty about dragging Duo into all of this after all? I shake it off as we head for the door, Duo explaining my reasoning to a bemused Quatre as we leave.
* * *
“The Sharahan providence is 57.78 percent sanitized. Middle Asia, which as progressed faster than anticipated, is at 72.49 percent sanitized. Terian is progressing slowly, 19.87 percent sanitized. Reinforcements have made the going slow.”
Angelina nodded as Tulie finished her report. An unlikely ally, Tulie has proved invaluable over the years. Angelina very much doubted that she could have accomplished half as much without her by her side. “Good Tulie. Then it’s time. Now that we have their attention, it is time to move on to faze two.”
* * *
“I hate this godless place.” Alvar remarks vehemently from where he sits shivering on couch in the low rent apartment we have commandeered. “I would have been perfectly safe in Brussels,” he repeated for the six time in the last half hour, “I don’t know why you couldn’t have just left me there!”
L2 has never been my favorite of colonies; one of the poorest it lacks many of the amenities that I myself grew up with, but it is certainly not as bad as Alvar makes it out to be. My rapidly diminishing view of Alvar drops yet one notch lower and I long to hit him, but restrain myself. “I don’t know what you ever saw in him.” I say, turning to where Muhammad is making dinner.
He glances up surprise evident on his face and laughs. “He just hates the cold. He’s not so bad once you get to know him.”
The conversation shuts Alvar up and he glares at both of us, finally getting up to go sulk elsewhere. I shake my head, “I very much doubt it. So do you think your source will actually pan out this time?” I ask caustically. All the waiting and chasing of dead-ends in the last three weeks has chafed. I am weary of the inactivity as is clearly evident by my decimation of the punching bag that I was able to scrounge up from a second hand store. To my irritation he laughs again.
I roll my eyes. “If you say something about my age again you’ll be giving my answer to your ancestors.”
His eyes twinkle and I suppress the urge to hit him as well, he opens his mouth and stops, his eyes change for a moment becoming inscrutable and then he says apropos of nothing, “You must be tired of punching that useless sack at this point. Care for a real challenge?”
His tone is friendly but his eyes are challenging, I lunge at the opportunity, “You think you’re up for it?”
After taking dinner of the stove and placing a tea towel over it he leads the way to the make shift exercise room, “See if you can keep up.” He throws back at me.
I can’t. He moves faster than I seen anyone but Maxwell move. But he has the power of Yuy. It is terrifying; all I can to is throw block after block, trusting my reflexes to keep me out of the corners. I managed to get a jab past his guard allowing me enough time to spring back, breathing hard. This is ridiculous; I’ve never seen anyone fight like this! It’s inhuman. He hasn’t even broken a sweat yet! He rolls easily on his feet, his eyes almost feral as he watches me, gauging my level of exhaustion. I throw a jump turning round kick, followed by a back and middle punch; he dodges easily, almost lazily, and then begins countering with his own furry of strikes. I manage to dodge—just— but I have lost my sense of the room trying to deflect his onslaught and I find myself pinned against the wall. Chest heaving I stare into his eyes—and I am stunned by the coldness I find there, the complete lack of emotion. Again, unbidden the image of Yuy springs to mind. This man is cut from the same cloth. Or more appropriately cast from the same steel. There is nothing of the gentle humor that I have come to associate with him; there is nothing but a cold and efficient killer before me. He steps back, releasing me and I fall into a guarded stance once again, but he waves it off.
“You’re good.” He says finally, cocking his head to one side, the coldness leaving his eyes. “The best I’ve ever fought actually.”
I stare at him, “Who are you?” I burst out finally, “Where did you learn to fight like that?” I demand, frustrated and confused. That my training has let me down so completely is humiliating.
He shakes his head, “Agent Change— Wufei, I have been training since before you were born. Trust me when I say that at your age you would have been my superior. With proper training you may still surpass me.” There is admiration in his tone but I ignore it in favor of my outrage.
“That’s ridicules! You can’t be older than twenty five, twenty six at the most!”
He laughs, turning to leave, all he says is, “I age well.” And then he’s gone. I stare at the practice mat in disbelief. Running the fight over again in my head I move to the center of the mat and start to practice.
* * *
“Yes, yes—Maria calm down. No—yes I understand, I’ll be there right away.”
I glanced up at the strangled sound in Q’s tone his face is pale and his normally cheerful expression, stricken. I glanced at Heero who has looked up from his book and is frowning in Quatre’s direction.
“Yes, I’m on my way. Ok, I’ll see you in a few hours.” Quatre hung up and set his phone down carefully. His hand was shaking.
“Q what’s wrong?”
Quatre looked at me his eyes huge with grief, “You remember I told you about Tony Winters?” he ask, his voice tight.
“The man who kept your company going, yeah sure, is he ok?”
“No.” Quatre shook his head, his hair falling into his eyes, “He’s been murdered. So have his twin sons. That was his wife. She’s frantic. I—I have to go.”
“We will go with you.” Heero says, standing. I know that tone, its one that means that there will be no argument, not that Q looks like he’s up to a debate. He nods absently and stands as well. “I need to make shuttle arrangements—
“I’ll do that.” I interrupted, “You just go pack up what you’ll need, leave the rest to us.”
“Thank you.” He says absently.
We watch him go, horrified on his behalf. “This is awful.”
Heero nods wordlessly, the sound of his computer keys loud in the silence. “I’ve notified the Magunaques, they will be here within the hour to escort us.” He hesitates and then adds, “They’re not happy that he returning. The killer hasn’t been caught.”
“There’s no way we can talk him into staying.” I reply
Heero nods again, “Agreed, but we should be cautio—
Heero breaks off, eyes wide. “What?” When he doesn’t answer right away I start to panic ever so slightly, “Heero, what?!”
“The president of the United States was just assassinated.”
“He was what?!”
“Assassinated. As was the head of the British Royal house.” He scans the rest of the article, “Duo, the Heads of State of over fifty different nations have been killed!”
“Oh god.” I breathe, “Quatre. They were trying to kill Quatre and got Winters.”
Heero is already moving; we race up the stairs to Quatre’s room. We burst through the door to find him haphazardly packing, tears streaming down his face “Wha—Duo! Heero! What’s wrong?” He chokes out, clearly upset and embarrassed to have us see him like his. I rush over and hug him, pulling him out of the room and into the windowless hallway, ignoring his squawk of protest.
“We need to get him down to the basement.” Heero says, clearly running over the blueprints of our new headquarters through his mind. I nod, tugging Quatre along with me as we move carefully through the building but Quatre balks.
“Duo, Heero, what in the name of Allah is going on?” He demands
“Q, over fifty Heads of State have been assassinated—
“In the last half hour— Heero interjects
“We need to get you some place safe until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Quatre is quiet as his mind flicks through the implications. He is first and foremost a tactician. His eyes narrow, “They were after me. They killed Tony by mistake.”
“Possibly.” Heero says curtly, as he angles his head around a corner, “Or they wanted him dead as well.”
“Do they have any information on the killers?”
“Not yet.” Heero says grimly, “Question latter, first we need to get you safe.”
Quatre is clearly unhappy but refrains from further questions. But the set of his shoulders echoes my own thoughts, we will find out who did this. And the fuckers will pay.
* * *
“Merciful Allah.” Muhammad breathes.
His tone is such that conversation in the living room of our current base of operations silences immediately. I have never heard him take this tone, but by the looks on Riker and Marshall’s faces, something is very, very wrong.
“What?” Riker asks, dread obvious in her tone. Clearly she would rather not know what has driven Muhammad to make such an exclamation
“It was a diversion. God have mercy upon us. Riker they have killed the male leaders of the nations. All of them.”
There is a hiss of a shocked intake of breathe from the room, we look around at each other knowing that we have failed. Riker stands swiftly and moves to another room, Sally pales her eyes finding mine clearly asking how we could have stopped this. But I have no more of an answer for her than she for me. I shake my head and look back to Muhammad. His shoulders are slumped as he scans through the information on his laptop. As I move to pull my own towards me Riker reenters the room.
“Muhammad, that bloke what told you that Dr. Alverz is on L2 proper. You think he was right?”
Muhammad looks up, “yes.”
“Then pack up, we’re headed there now. She turns to Alvar, “One complaint out of you and we’ll leave you for them.” His eyes go wide but he says nothing. She turns to the rest of us, “We move out in thirty minutes. Pack it up.”
* * *
When we were coming up with a blueprint for the renovations of what was to be our organization's new headquarters, I insisted that the basement be built and treated as a bunker. They others had looked at me like I was speaking Greek, there had been rumblings about paranoia but I'd insisted nevertheless. I grew up on these streets; I know what it is to need a place that is truly safe. There would be no repeats of the Maxwell Church on my watch ever again. It was to this bunker that we retreated, setting up a makeshift base of operations as we attempted to compile, correlate and then validate the ridicules amounts of information that we were being flooded with.
"All of the nation's world leaders had been killed." Screamed on headline. "No none of them had been killed, it was an elaborate ploy to instigate another war." or "Over thirty million people were dead of a mysterious plague of unknown origin." And the ubiquitous, ”The the end of days is at hand, repent now or be damned to ever lasting torment!" You know those kinds of things. By the end of three hours we were able to verify that over seventy-five male heads of state as well as members of their family, body guard and so on had, indeed, been assassinated. As inquires were carried out and more information was amassed a picture began to form. The deaths all took place roughly within twenty to thirty minuets of each other. There were no suspects at this time. In many instances point of entry and exit could not be verified; many of the victims had been at home, surround by mile-high fences and the best security available. It hadn't save them. Only a few prominent men had escaped the slaughter, Quatre was one of them, and only because he had been on L2 working in the trenches with us rather then in his high-rise office complex. I find it fitting that it is Quatre's generous heart that saved his life.
The Magunacq core had showed up and the entire building had gone into lock down. I wouldn't have wanted to try and get past these guys. Their expressions were ugly as they took up their positions, promising swift if painful death to any who would threaten their Master's life. Once they were in place I felt that is was safe enough for Q to put in a call to his sisters and let them know that he was ok. Even if the call was being traced—and if they could hack a system set up by Yuy then they were gods and we were all fucked anyway— there was no way they were getting in here. His sisters were giddy with relief; they had been frantic while unable to locate him. They assured him that they would handle things and that he should stay out of sight until we knew more about what was going on. I agreed, but Quatre was furious.
"I should be out there helping!" He argued, "Hiding in here isn't doing anyone any good!"
"On the contrary Q, it is helping me keep my sanity." Suddenly I wished Heero hadn't decided to go out to see what else he could find, people on the other end of his glare of death always seemed to listen. Go figure. " We can't have you running around until we know what's going on."
Quatre opened his mouth to reply but was cut off by the sound of the latest news broad cast, "This just in, the body toll has climbed to eighty as the family of the Russian Prime minister has been found slain along with his three male body guards. As the world governments remain in chaos, we take you now to the ESUN head quarters in Brussels where Relena Dorlan will address the nations."
The camera cut to a scene of Relena standing on a dais behind a podium, she was pale but calm, her resolve a soothing presence amidst the scenes of chaos that had been flashing over the screen.
"Ladies and Gentlemen." She began, "Today is a day of unprecedented horror. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims as well as all of you. As of this moment 80 men are known to be dead. Who their killers are and why they have been slain is unknown at this time. We are taking every precaution to ensure that there will be no more deaths and that their killers will be caught and brought to justice. I ask the nations to remain calm. Panic will do nothing but cause additional problems.
Please know that the Emergency National Guards of all Nations as well as the Preventers have been put on high alert. The ENG will be patrolling the streets, should you see anything suspicious please report such activity to one of these men or women or phone your information into the hotline that is being set up for this purpose. Again, I must ask you not to panic. Your governments are not going to fall. There are able men and women who are even now assuming the responsibilities of your previous leaders and they will ensure that order is persevered. We must stand together in order to see that justice prevails. Thank you."
"Q," I said softly, "The best thing we can do right now is to hunker down and stay put. Once we know the lay of the land then we can rush in guns a-blazing, trust me, I want these fuckers as much as you do," I growled, "but we have to wait." I gave him a lopsided smile, "You're the tactician. You know I'm right."
He sighed heavily, "I know. But that doesn't make it any easier."
“It never does.”
* * *
The shuttle ride to L2 proper was a long one. We had caught one of the few emergency flights over, flashing our Preventer's badges in order to secure seats. We all watched as Relena tried to assure the Nations not to panic, and Riker spent almost the entire ride on the phone with Commander Une. I decided to do some digging to see if I couldn't find out more about Muhammad. But it didn't take me long to realize that he was nothing more than a ghost. Not surprising really, considering Riker's description of him as deep under cover. I tried the Preventers file but even with my highest clearance code couldn't even find a listing for him, which gave me pause. When Riker finally hung up with the Commander looking haggard, I shifted seats so that I was seated next to her.
She looked up, surprised. "Something I can help you with there Chang?"
"I want to know more about Muhammad. He isn't registered with the Preventers."
She gave me a knowing, if tired smile, "Yeah, he said that you'd probably have a bee in your bonnet."
"Why couldn't I find him in the system Riker." I pressed.
"Well you wouldn't have done, cause he's not in there." She answered easily, "Muhammad doesn't work for the Preventers."
My eyes narrowed, "Then who does he work for?"
Riker sighed, "You're going to be tedious about this aren't you. Look, Muhammad works for Marshal, who works for me as an independent contractor. Neither of them is, technically, with the Preventers. It's been cleared through Une."
"Why? Why go through all that, why not just have him work through the Preventers directly."
Riker looked at me balefully, "For Muhammad to be truly effective he can't exist. Even with all the precautions the Preventers take it would still make him traceable. This way he keeps his anonymity."
"So do you know anything about him?"
"Yeah mate, I do, but it's none of your concern. An’ since last time I checked I out rank you, I'll thank you to watch your damn tone." Riker answered sharply.
I could see that I wasn't going to get anything more out of her so I stood stiffly and made my way back to my seat.
Once we had landed at the more or less deserted spaceport we huddled together to lay our plan of attack. "Alright, the rest of you stay here. I will confront Alverz and see what I can come up with."
Muhammad look shocked, "No? But . . .I thought that's why we came here."
"We did, but you're not going it alone this time."
Muhammad opened his mouth to object, clearly unhappy, but Riker cut him off, "No Muhammad we need all of us there. We don't have the time anymore. We need answers and we need them now."
Muhammad looked visibly upset, something I had never seen, he pulled Riker aside and began speaking with her in hushed voices. I watch speculatively but was unable to hear anything that was discussed.
" . . .that chance. I'm sorry." Riker said, her voice returning to normal level. "Alright troops, we are headed to 4590 Bunster Street AE 340-085 number 10b. We need to commandeer a vehicle and then we're moving fast. The plan is to get in and hit them hard before they know what's going on. We'll worry about the legal-Es latter. Muhammad and Chang you are on point, Marshall you'll cover us. Po, you and I will keep to the middle. Above all else we need Dr. Alvez alive. Is that understood?" We barked our understanding and she nodded, "Once we have him in custody we will retire to a location that I deem secure and then ask the good Dr. to enlighten us. Let me speak plainly here kids, I mean to torture him if he's not willing to give up what I need, if anyone has a problem with that then you’ll be staying here." She looked to each of us, looking for signs of discomfort with the idea. She certainly found none in me; I was itching to get my hands on this man. I had questions of my own that needed answering. For all I knew he could have helped install the devise that allowed Master O to blow up my colony. "Once we have what we need to know we will evacuate. We will attempt to extract the Dr alive but if we are unable then we will have to kill him. Having—hopefully—gained information on the whereabouts of the women's base of operation we will then rendezvous back at this point. Are there any question?” Once again, her gaze swept over each of us, “This is it kids do not fuck up.” Move out."
Muhammad ran a decryption code on the door as I stood watch on the corridor. We had parted ways with Sally, Marshall and Riker when it became clear that the tunnel branched and we were unsure as to which direction we needed to take. Which ever team located Alvez first was to radio the other. After detaining Alvez we were then to meet back up at a designated rendezvous. I turned at the sound of a beep as the door swished opened and Muhammad launched himself through the doors, but the room was unguarded, a single, bent man in a faded lab coat looked up at our entry. He gave a start as he took in me and then his eyes flashed my guns. He raised his hands slowly.
“So gentlemen how can I— He stopped as he caught sight of Muhammad’s face. “Oh dear Lord. It’s you.”
I wished that I could have said that I was surprised about what happened in Middle Asia. I wasn’t. It shocked and saddened those around me, but I never dreamt of peace. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and nothing I’ve ever seen made me think that peace was something mankind was engineered for. At the end of the day we were all still animals, I don’t mean in the philosophic sense but in the literal. We need food, water, shelter and mates. And when too many animals try to inhabit a space that is too small, they inevitably fight.
“…wonder what’s going on?”
“…crazy…why would they…do you think?”
“…don’t know, maybe….”
“Yes.” The voices grew stronger as they approach my trailer. I glanced up to see Catherine and Vargo, one of the circus clowns, stick their heads in the door. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“No.” I shifted, standing up, hunching automatically so I didn’t knock myself out on the low ceiling. “What’s the problem?”
Catherine bit her lip. “I’m not sure. It’s just that when we pulled in there wasn’t anyone at the site and when we went looking we couldn’t find anyone.”
“Maybe they’ve gone out for lunch.” I offered. They backed out of my door as I moved outside and looked around. The area was deserted, the small office where we should have met the registration staff looked recently abandoned.
“Don’t think so.” Vargo said. “Or if they did they did it in a damn hurry, the place is a mess.”
The office was a mess. Papers and spilled coffee were everywhere, chairs had been overturned and a corkboard swung drunkenly from one wall. I picked up a sheaf of papers scattered at my feet. I could see nothing of note as I scan it, so, letting it drop back to the floor, I checked over the rest of the room. Catharine and Vargo watched from the doorway. Finally I straitened, wiping my hands on my pants. “There’s nothing here to indicate why the left.”
“Maybe they were called away?” Vargo offered hesitantly. His tone indicated that he didn’t actually believe it; he was talking to fill the space.
“I don’t know—” I was interrupted by the TV, left on and angled so that it could be seen from the desk.
“This just in, Tvago De Terra of Spain has been confirmed dead on his yacht, along with two body guards and his lover Ricardo Savariez. As the body count of assassinated world leaders continues to rise, the whereabouts and condition of several leaders remain as of yet unconfirmed. This includes the crowned prince of Kazakhstan, the Prime Ministers of the Congo, Chile and Argentina, as well as Governors of L3-5467 and L2-24786 and the heir and CEO of the Winner Corporation, ambassador Quatre Winner. Stay with us as we go live to the ESUN conference room…”
I didn’t hear the rest because I was already half way out the door. “I have to go.”
“What?! Wait! Trowa!” Catharine cried, “What do you—what is going on? Come back here!”
“I have to go Catharine. Please let the Ringmaster know that I have resigned. Joey can take care of the lions, make sure that he keeps and eye on Mombassa she’s been having problems with her teeth.”
“Trowa, no! Don’t do this again.” Vargo had dropped back, clearly not wanting to enter into the conversation, but Catharine came running after me. I took the steps up to my tailor two at a time and begin methodically packing my smaller duffle. “Trowa stop!” She put a hand on my arm and forced me to look at her. “You tell me what’s going on right now.”
“Quatre is missing.”
“Who? Wait, wait the boy that shot you?” Her tone was torn between incredulousness and anger.
I didn’t have time for this. “Yes.” I threw the last of the essentials into my bag and headed toward the door. Catharine planted herself in my path.
“Trowa, I’m not letting you leave, the last time you left you nearly got yourself killed!”
I picked her up gently and set her down to my side and kept walking. I was getting into my jeep after unhitching it when she caught up with me again. “Trowa!”
I glanced up at her, “Yes?”
“Ugh!” She screamed in frustration, “You don’t even know what’s going on! You can’t just, just take off without a plan.”
“Take care of yourself Catherine.” I hit the gas; the jeep jumped, spraying gravel and then the tires caught and I opened the throttle and was gone. If I glanced in the review mirror I knew that I’d see Catherine standing, hands on hips, staring after me angrily. But I didn’t look back.
* * *
Q was seated next to me, his eyes going between the TV and his laptop as he correlated all of the incoming information with a speed that made me dizzy. I looked toward the door willing Heero to get the hell back here. We could do with some fresh info. The stuff that the networks had been spitting out was pretty redundant at this point.
After his initial outburst Quatre had gotten quiet. But his eyes were haunted and I just knew he was running a list of names through his head of all the people that he knew might end up on the mounting causality list. He’d blame himself. It was what Q did. Definitely going to have to work on those group therapy sessions, I thought morosely as I watched another name I recognized tick by on the screen. So much for the President of France. I glanced back up at the TV “ …as well as Governor of Governors of L3-5467 and L2-24786 and the heir and CEO of the Winner Corporation, ambassador Quatre Winner. Stay with us…”
“We should let them know that I’m alive.” Quatre commented without looking up.
I shrugged uncomfortably, “I dunno, Q, I think I’m ok with those crazy people thinking that you’re dead for the time being.”
Quatre sighed and nodded, looking frustrated. “You’re probably right. I wish…” he let the sentence trail off, and I raised an eyebrow.
He sighed again, “I wish Trowa was here.”
* * *
Alverez stared openly at Muhammad and then shook himself, a sardonic smile curling his lips. “I knew you hadn’t been destroyed,” he said smugly. “You convinced the others, but not me. I knew better.”
I blinked, confused. “You know each other?” I asked, as a feeling of unease settled into my stomach.
Alverez’s gaze flicked to me and then back to Muhammad. “I’m surprised it took you so long though.” He mused, “I would have thought you’d have been back years ago.”
“We are here for the teleporter information that you gave to the women.” Muhammad grated. We need to know where their base of operation is located.”
“Ah, that’s it, is it?”
“Yes.” Muhammad said shortly, “Where are they?”
“I told you that I could get the teleporter viable.” He continued self importantly, as if Muhammad hadn’t spoken. “It would have worked. Although” he said thoughtfully, “I have to admit that I never thought that it would have been suitable for humans. We built it for you after all.”
“Muhammad what is he talking about?” I asked tightly.
Understanding blossomed on Alverez wrinkled face, “he doesn’t know does he?” He asked his voice suddenly gleeful.
“We came for the information Alverez, people are dying.” Muhammad said stiffly.
Alverez turned to me, a cruel light in his eyes, “Did you think he was human?” He asked. “We did a good job didn’t we?” He laughed as Muhammad took a step forward, “I wouldn’t try that if I were you. We built you, we weren’t fool enough not to include a fail safe.”
“Built…?” I asked, my head swiveling between the two, “What the hell is he talking about?” I demanded.
Alverez grinned wickedly, “He’s an android, boy. A miniature Gundum. You are looking at the prototype of the army of Operation Meteor. Think of it. Build a hundred thousand indestructible soldiers, teleport them onto the field of battle and then watch the blood run.” Alverez cackled, “That had been the plan, the original plan at any rate. To create an army of them. We’d teleport’em to earth and then” Alverez let his hand fall dramatically, “Only he” he sneered at Muhammad, “turned out a bit differently than we’d anticipated. It was that damned learning algorithm that J insisted building into him. Wanted him to be able to think for himself.” Alverez snorted, “Lot of good that did us! He decided he didn’t want to be a part of Operation Meteor.” Alverez spat and shook his head, “Not that you boys were much better, damn J. He was the one who took it into his fool head to use humans. We hadn’t been able to get the teleportation system to work, so we scraped the idea of the larger army, scaled up the Gundum design, more bang for the buck that way—
I didn’t see Muhammad move, but suddenly his hand was around Alverez’s neck who was now dangling several feet off the floor. “People. Are. Dying.” Muhammad snarled, “Stop stalling! The women’s base of operation. Were is it?!”
Alverez made a choking sound, his eyes bugging out as he kicking his legs frantically, Muhammad gave him one more shake and then set him back down so that he could answer. “The coordinates are in my office, under the teleportation file.” He wheezed, eyes watering. His hands went protectively to his throat. “But you’ll never find them.” Muhammad took a menacing step forward and Alverez threw his other hand up in defense, “The women I mean, they can track any incoming teleportation, they’ll know if you’re coming.”
“You let us worry about that.” Muhammad said darkly, “Watch him.” He said over his shoulder to me and then stalked toward the office.
“He was always so touchy.” Alverez said delighted, recovering his equilibrium. “Pinocchio syndrome I called it. Always wanted to be a real boy.”
I shoved my gun in his face, “You will be quite.”
Alverez’s eyes went wide and he took a step back, “Attached to him are you?”
My head was spinning, I hadn’t processed a tenth of what he’d told me, but at the moment all I wanted to do was wipe that smug look of his withered face. I opened my mouth to retort, taking a step forward I glanced over his shoulder at where Muhammad was coming out of the office. It was the look on Muhammad face that saved me. Even as his expression froze and his eyes flicked behind me I was diving away. A silencer muffled the report of the gun, the shots coming in rapid succession as I hit the ground and rolled behind the nearest piece of furniture. I waited until I had my bearings before getting to my knees to open fire. Muhammad was already returning fire; he’d been stuck twice already and continued advancing silently, the women having to fall back. Alverez, on the other hand was screaming bloody murder.
“DON’T! NO! WE HAD A DEAL. WE HAD A DEAL!!” He fell abruptly silent as one of the bullets found their mark. I took out the last of the black clad women and Muhammad moved swiftly toward me.
“Are you injured?” he asked, reloading.
“No.” I grunted. I’d been grazed in the arm and the shallow wound was slowly leaking blood but I ignored it in favor of looking Muhammad over. He’d been hit directly in his chest—the bullet meant for me—and another in his stomach.
“Are you…” I let the question trail off as Muhammad moved away toward a large bank of equipment. I’d caught a flash of metal as he turned and he moved without sign of pain so I took that for the answer it was.
Muhammad began punching in codes, after a few minuets he started swearing. He looked up at me, “Do you know anything about hacking? ”
I blinked, “You’re the robot, can’t you?”
Emotion flickered across Muhammad’s face. “No.” he answered flatly, “I take it you cannot either?”
“It has never been my forte, no, we left that to Yuy.” Muhammad swore softly and then went around to the back of the computer and tugged out the Moreboard chip. “Wasn’t it in the file” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“No. He was, as I said, stalling. Do you know where to find this Yuy?”
I snorted. “No—”my sentence was aborted, however, as the sound of the building’s fire alarm ripped through the quiet.
“Later.” Muhammad promised and caught me by the arm half dragged me out of the room. When I’d regained my balance I yanked my arm out of his grasp and we left the building at a dead run.
We were running late when we met back up with the others at the rendezvous location, about a quarter of a mile from the lab. The waling of the alarm sirens could still be heard faintly, but it wasn’t enough to drown out the sound of Sally arguing with Riker about going back after us when we sprinted in.
Marshall, who had been leaning against a post and watching the two women argue was the first to spot us. “Thank God!” Sally shouted, when she finally caught sight of us too. “What the hell happened? What did you do?” Her eyes went wide as she took in the holes in Muhammad’s shirt. “Are you ok?” She was already moving toward him, hand reaching out when Muhammad cut her off with a curt, “I’m fine.” He turned to Riker, and held up the Moreboard chip. “I’ve got the information we need, but I have no way to accesses it.”
Riker looked frustrated, “That doesn’t do us much good, mate. I’ve no way to get this to the people what need it. We can’t be sure of a secure line, I dunno who all’s involved with this.”
“Yes, you mentioned him,” Muhammad replied, clearly frustrated, “but you don’t know where he is.”
“No,” I pointed, “Yuy, that’s him.”
They turned and looked in the direction I was pointing. An on coming jeep was speeding down the main road, the lone occupant jumping clear before it was fully stopped and racing toward the first access building for the lab complex. I rolled my eyes, typical. “Yuy!” I bellowed. The figure froze for a moment and then turned. I waved even as I heard Muhammad mutter sarcastically, “Stealth, thy name is Change Wufei.” I ignored him and waved again. Yuy hesitated momentarily and then began trotting in our direction.
“Chang.” He barked, “What’s going on?”
“It’s a long story.” Riker overrode me, “I assume that you’re Yuy as in Heero Yuy?” Yuy gave her a long look and then nodded. “Brilliant. We need your help, we’ve got a Morebord what needs decoding and I’ve been led to believe that you’re the bloke what can do it.”
Yuy blinked and then looked at me. “We’re tracking the location of the assassins. The coordinates are on a chip that we extracted from the lab,” I translated, jerking my head in the direction we had come. “But we cannot access the information, nor can we get an assured safe line through to Preventers’ Headquarters.”
The jeep roared along the mostly deserted roadway; Yuy taking turns tight enough to make even Riker flinch. “What are you doing here?” I asked when we were far enough away from the lab site.
“Recon.” Yuy grunted.
“No, what are you doing on L2?”
“Working with Duo.”
That stopped me for a moment and Yuy started in with his own questions. “What do you know of the assassins?”
“They’re using teleporter technology to gain unfettered access to their targets. They leave by the same method. It’s some feminist group, probably based out of the Middle East, but we’ve been unable to secure a firm location. We were here confronting one of the Doctors who helped create the technology when all hell broke lose.” Sally glanced meaningfully at Muhammad and myself. “How’s Duo?”
“Trying to keep Winner from doing something stupid.”
“Winner’s here?” I asked incredulously
“He’s been working with us. We’re starting up a charity organization.”
“Now is not the time chaps.” Riker broke in, “Muhammad, how accurate do you think this information is.”
“One hundred percent. The machine that I pulled it out of was a path tracker, it records and stores teleportation movement.”
“Why would he have something like that?” I asked skeptically.
Muhammad shrugged eloquently, “Initially? It was meant to track the movement of the ‘army’” Muhammad tone was bland to the point of boredom but his eyes flared. “Now? Insurance? Boredom? A perverse desire to watch them hopscotch around the world and kill people? Alverez was never the sanest of the group.”
Sally looked from myself to Muhammad, “Am I missing something?”
“Prolly.” Marshall interrupted smoothly. “So what now Lady?”
“We see if the Savior here can’t unfog our data and then go get the bastards.”
“Beautiful. I like a plan wid few movin’ parts.”
* * *
“Do the others know?” I asked, watching as Muhammad pulled off his shirt and prepared to put on another. The bullet holes could be seen clearly now, in fact it looked as if one the bullets was still attached to the metal that had stopped it.
Muhammad glanced over his shoulder. “Yes.”
“Are there any more of you?”
“No. I was the prototype.” The shirt muffled the words, but tension sang along his spine. When his head was clear again he turned back around, “I would appreciate, Agent Chang, if you could refrain from speaking of me as a thing.” His mouth tightened.
I blinked, and I had to admit I was slightly taken aback; I had started to think of him more as I might have my Gundam than a person. Which left open the question… “Well, aren’t you?”
Muhammad looked momentarily stricken and then he was moving, almost faster than the eye could follow, and I found myself slammed up against the wall before rational thought or martial instinct could respond. Lips descended on mine. The kiss was searing, heat and texture and passion. My body responded independently of any direction from me and I was gasping when he pulled back, faintly shocked upon realizing that my hands had been in his hair, and his on my waist.
“I am not a thing.” He growled angrily, eyes flashing. And I believed him.
“You kissed me.” I said, stupidly. I have never actually been kissed before. In my youth I had assumed my first kiss would be from Marian. After her death…I didn’t think much on the subject. Romance and its numerous complications were below me, or so I’d thought. But the heat that had seared through me still lingered on my lips and I found, to my great surprise, that I wanted more.
Muhammad opened his mouth to respond and then stopped the frustration and anger in his eyes cleared and his mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Yes, I did.”
“Because,” Muhammad said simply, still grinning. “I’ve wanted to do so since the day that I met you. It was either that, or knock you unconscious.”
“I’m glad you chose the first.”
“Are you?” Muhammad asked, lifting his eyebrows.
“I meant that I’m glad that you didn’t knock me unconscious.” I growled. “We’ve got work to do.”
Muhammad smile widened, “Of course.” He moved in again and even though I knew it was coming this time, I didn’t try to stop him. The heat was the same, and while it was still demanding there was a gentler edge to it. I blame it on the surreal circumstances of the last twenty-four hours, but I pulled him closer, running hands over his chest until I found one of the bullet holes. I broke the kiss to ask, “Are you really ok?”
He ran one hand along my face, “I’m—I was built with and exoskeleton of Gundanium.”
I mirrored him, running my hand along the side of his face and back into his hair, “Can you feel as I feel?”
“Very definitely.” Muhammad grinned lasciviously and to my horror I found myself blushing,
“I know. Not originally… I was not built with a system that allowed me to, but I’ve,” his focus shifted to a place in middle distance, “I’ve spent the intervening years aspiring to be something that, ultimately, I cannot be, but,” He coughed, “yes, I now have in place a synthetic neuron net that mimics your nervous system. I can turn it off at will, thus I don’t feel pain,” he indicated his chest, “But this,” he rubbed his thumb along my cheekbone, “This I most definitely feel.”
I was about to respond when a pounding on the door interrupted us. “Oi! Chang, your boy’s cracked the code, we’re off.”
* * *
They wanted to leave us behind. We needed to get to the Middle East yesterday, we were the only ones with Transport thanks to Q’s resources and they wanted to leave us behind. Yeah, like that was gonna happen. Q had gone all icy and was doing that ‘superior tactician zero system thing’ that creeps me the hell out and Heero…Heero kept looking at the Muhammad guy like he didn’t know what to make of him. I don’t know, he seemed like a nice enough guy to me. Agent Riker on the other hand, was getting on my nerves. There was no way in hell we were just gonna sit here and let them go in on their own, I don’t care how good this Muhammad character supposedly was. They needed back up and they were gonna get it whether they liked it or not.
“Look,” I interrupted the icily polite argument Q was trying to have with Riker about who had the authority to do what. To her credit she looked more exasperated than angry. “We’re goin’. So you can argue all you like but at the end of the day, we’re the ones with the transport, not you. So suck it up.”
“Look mate, I appreciate it, I do,” her eyes slid from mine to Q and back again, “but I just can’t put civilians in harm’s way—
“What civilians,” I interrupted, “were all Gundam pilots woman.”
Riker’s eyes went wide, “What, all of you?” She turned back to Quatre, “Seriously?” He gave a tight nod and Riker laughed, relief clear in her expression, “You might’ve mentioned!”
“Ok Heero, you’ll be staying back and coordinating our efforts.” I spoke up when we hit atmo. It was unlike me to give orders and I could see the others were a bit taken by surprised but I’d be damned if Heero was gonna have to break his promise on my watch. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him shift slightly closer, like some how proximity to me would make it true.
“But Heero should be on point.” Quatre said, looking at me quizzically.
“Nope.” I said, and looked at Q, willing him not to argue, not now. To understand. And bless that little space heart of his, he did.
“Right.” Q said, taking over easily, “Heero will remain on guard, and will—
“Winner.” Wufei interrupted. “What is this nonsense, Heero is our biggest gun next to Muhammad, why on earth are we keeping him back?”
“We’re going to hold him in reserve Wufei.” Quatre replied, and he sounded so matter-of-fact you might have thought he’d been planning it all along. “Besides we’ll need him to monitor the security system and jam the teleporter signal so that we don’t get surrounded.” The fact that the teleporter signal could be jammed was a lovely bit of news that Heero had come up with. “As you’ve stated, Muhammad is our biggest gun.” I was as puzzled about that one as Q obviously was but the others—including Wufei—had been adamant about it and if Wufei said that the guy was good, then he must be fucking amazing. “So he and Marshall will be taking point while Duo makes us an entry way.” Q grinned over at me and I gave him a thumbs up. “Once we’ve got an access point, Duo you’ll drop back and provide cover for Muhammad and Marshall, Wufei, who will have been keeping watch, will join you. The three of you will then proceed to find and destroy the teleporter, which is our biggest obstacle. Sally, Riker and myself will bring up the rear. Once the target is located and destroyed we will then fan out in groups of two and three and see if we can’t locate the leader. She is to be taken alive if at all possible, but any means necessary will be acceptable. Heero will keep us apprised of each others movements.”
Wufei looked like he wanted to object but Muhammad elbowed him in the ribs and he stayed quite. That raised a couple of eyebrow, including my own, but nobody said anything. “Questions?” Quatre swept his gaze over us. “Good. Riker, if you’ll help me get the equipment set up we’ll be good to go.”
I have to say that I was surprised at how willingly Riker acquiesced to Q taking command. I’d figured her for the hardheaded, feminist type who had to “prove” she could hang with the big boys, but once she’d heard our credentials she’d just handed things over to Q and got on with it like the rest of us. Point for her at any rate. Marshall was fantastic, it was nice to have somebody else around who hadn’t had his sense of humor surgically removed. He was also a fellow demolitionist, though not on my scale, and we’d chatted amiably while going through my diminished stock of C4 and platique explosives that were going to provide us our doorway. Muhammad, he’d stayed pretty much to himself, speaking quietly with Riker, Marshall and Wufei upon occasion. The interaction between Wufei and Muhammad was down right freaky. They kept looking at each other and then away. I had to shake my head, now was not the time to think about it, it was time to get in the game.
* * *
There is a god, and his name is Duo Maxwell. I hadn’t known how I was going to hold to my promise. Not in a situation such as this. I’d insisted, just as the others had, that I be allowed to go along. This was far too important to be left to others, even if Riker and her crew seemed a capable outfit, I couldn’t stand on the sidelines while everything we’d fought for was in jeopardy. But I didn’t want to be put in a situation where I might have to kill again, and thankfully Duo had provided me with a plausible excuse.
As Duo took the controls of the shuttle again and prepared to land, I watched the others. Marshall and Riker were clearly experienced, they seemed calm and competent and though I loathed going into battle with an unknown I believed that they could be relied upon. Muhammad. Muhammad I did not like. I couldn’t even say why. I hadn’t liked him from the moment I laid eyes on him. There was something wrong, fundamentally so, in the way he moved, in the way he held himself. His interaction with Chang was odder still, but I could find nothing factual upon which to base my objections, so for the time being I would just have to remain quiet. But I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of Duo and Quatre having to depend upon him, enough that I was tempted to insist that I take his place. I was opening my mouth to do so when we suddenly hit the tarmac and everyone was thrown roughly sideways. Everyone but Muhammad. Even Chang, as graceful as he is, had to scramble for a handhold. But not Muhammad. His stability smacked of internal stabilization that I would have accorded to Wing. It was with that thought that I realize what my problem stemmed from. He was built like Wing. Proportionally, his shape and movements reminded me so much of my former Gundam that I was shocked to stillness for several moments.
“Sorry about that.” Duo called back, “I got blipped, had to land sooner than I’d anticipated to stay under the radar. Everybody ok?”
“Did they make us?” Sally asked
“Don’t think so, but we better scoot just incase.”
We double timed it off the shuttle, equipment in tow and made the short trek to the coordinates that I’d extracted from the Moorebord chip. I watched Muhammad the entire time; eventually he became aware of my scrutiny and raised a hand in salute. I didn’t return the gesture; instead I used the time to study him more intently.
“Problem?” He asked quietly and I nodded.
“You’re movements, build and proportions are uncannily reminiscent of my Gundam.”
He sighed and gave me a lopsided grin. “Well spotted. J trained you better than I could have believed possible.”
My eyes narrowed. “What do you know of Dr. J?”
“He helped to build me. Along with the other scientist.”
“His army.” I said, understanding. J had mentioned once, the original intent of Operation Meteor had been to use man sized Gundams so that they could be moved under the radar, but the plan had been abandoned as too costly to be effective and they had scaled up the models to increase the amount of damage they could do thus decreasing the numbers needed. “He said that you’d been destroyed.”
Muhammad shrugged. “He thought I had. They all thought that I had. It was convenient for me that they think so. I,” His eyes shifted to follow Chang’s movements up ahead, “I was more than they intended, or I have made myself so.” He shrugged, “I wanted more out of my existence that to be cannon fodder.”
I nodded, understanding the feeling. “How have you ended up here?”
Muhammad laughed. “In my search to make myself more, I fell in with Marshall,” he nodded in the direction of the huge black man who was bent over a pile of explosives with Duo. “He was originally part of a black market group the specialized in building mechas. Riker, who once worked black ops for the British government, got Marshall to turn informer, after the group was busted Marshall and I went to work for her. We were later recruited into the Preventers when the black ops group was disbanded in favor of the disarmament treaty brokered with ESUN.” Muhammad glanced around and then said, “I know it will be folly to ask you this, but if you could not mention it…
He looked at me for a moment and then shrugged, and drifted toward the small huddle of Marshall and Riker, Wufei and Sally joined them a few moments latter.
“This should keep us in communication with each other” Quatre said, handing out ear comms, “I don’t want any heroics, understood?” He glared particularly hard at Wufei, “If anyone gets in over his or her head once we’ve separated, sing out so we can get proper back up to you.” There were nods all around. “Good. Now let’s go over the timing again.”
* * *
Damn that man! I cursed mentally as I jerked my eyes back to the horizon and away from the direction Muhammad and the others had gone. My concentration was shot all to hell, I was confused and frustrated and, though I would not admit it on pain of death, scared out of my mind. Did this mean that I was a homosexual? Could one have a relationship with an artificial life form? Did I want a relationship with an artificial life form? Did he? I shook my head, Keep your mind on the mission, damn it! I growled fiercely at myself. My eyes scanned the horizon for any possible targets. With an enemy that could, literally, pop out of thin air, I could not afford a moment’s distraction. So did he have to kiss me on the eve of our assault on one of the most dangerous opponent I’ve ever faced? Well, did he? It’s not like we haven’t been living cheek by jowl for the last several months. Mentally I threw up my arms, Ancestors, I sound like a damn woman.
The sound of the explosion brought my head up, it looked like we had our door. I sprinted toward the rising pillar of smoke and joined up with Marshall, Duo and Muhammad. Duo grinned manically at me, a look that was consistent with whenever he got to play with explosives. Muhammad nodded and Marshall said quietly, “I vote we let Muhammad take point.”
I nodded, and Muhammad slipped through the gap with Marshall and myself behind him. We were met with an onslaught of black clad warriors, rounds of automatic weapons slammed into the walls all around us as we used some of the debris from the explosion for cover. Muhammad, who didn’t fear being struck as we did, barreled into fray. His attack caught the figures momentarily off guard and then he was among them, and their long-range weapons became momentarily useless. Marshall, Duo and I picked of those on the out skirts of the group, which only added to the confusion and panic, soon the room was cleared and we were bolting down the hall way. We were thundering down another corridor when Duo screeched to a halt. “Guys!” he bellowed. We stopped as well and darted after him as he ducked into a side room.
“Maxwell?!” I demanded, not, at first, understanding the cause for the delay. But he waved me to quite and started sub vocalizing into his throat microphone. I could follow the conversation between him and Yuy on the comm and realized that Yuy was walking him through a very complicated hack of the system, which would then enable Yuy to access it. My estimation of Maxwell rose ever so slightly. Once Heero was in, Duo was up and moving again while Yuy began barking directions. Right, left, left, right; we flashed through heavily armed corridors, falling back to let Muhammad take the brunt of it, Duo it seemed, had picked up on the fact that Muhammad was nigh invulnerable, and when at one point we had cleared the room and the shine of metal could be seen clearly on several places Duo exclaimed, “Fuck me, you’re like the Bionic man!”
Marshall had roared with laughter and clapped Duo on the back so hard that he’d almost fallen over. “That he is mon, and he be the best of the best! I made sure of dat!”
“Yes, thank you.” Muhammad had replied dryly, rolling his eyes.
When we hit the Teleportation room the resistance was the highest we had encountered. Finally we had to pull back, Duo had been shot in the arm and the leg, Marshall’s bicep was streaming. I’d been caught on the side of the neck but thankfully it had only nicked me. Muhammad looked terrible, at some point he’d actually taken a built to the cheek and the gleam of the metal flashed eerily when he spoke. It was hard not to stare.
“Duo.” Muhammad said suddenly, “Do you have any of the C4 left?”
“Yeah, but this close we’d burry ourselves as well as the teleporter.”
“If we can leave it on a timer—
“Ah, see now that I don’t have.”
Muhammad frowned, “all right the rest of you get clear and split up, Marshall you and Duo head east, Wufei pull back 200 paces and wait for me. I’ll get the C4 through myself.” Duo looked like he wanted to argue but Marshall was already pulling him the other direction.
“Can,” I cleared my throat, rough from smoke, “Can you do that?”
Muhammad flashed me a smile, “Would you’re Gunndam have minded a bit of C4?”
For a reason I couldn’t name I didn’t like the comparison, “You are not a Gundam.” I replied, more fiercely than I’d intended.
Muhammad’s face faltered and then he pulled me close, his mouth ghosting over mind, “Thank you.” And then he darted out into the group guarding the door, C4 clutched to his chest. I hesitated for only a moment more and then darted back the way I’d come.
* * *
“Hey ‘Ro, didja get all that?”
“You and Marshall are breaking off toward the east, Chang and Muhammad will continue the attack on the Teleporter. Winner’s group is circling back, looking for an access point that I was able to locate.”
“It is one of two possible access points to the bunker, which is where he and I estimate the reserve and the leader will be located.”
“Cool. So where you sending us now, buddy?
There was silence on the line, I heard the clatter of keys and then Heero answered, “Head to corridor F, stay on the path you’re on now, take the second to next left, a right and then two lefts. You should find the secondary access panel, someone has been able to override some of my access and I need you to patch me in deeper.”
“Ok, but I better get to blow something else up pretty soon, I’m starting to get bored.”
“Love you too.”
Heero snorted over the line and I glanced up to see Marshall grinning at me. “What?” I asked as we started racing in the direction that Heero had indicated.
“Nuting. It’s cute, is all. So how long you been together?”
I snorted a laugh. “Naw, man, we’re just friends. We worked together when we were in the war.”
“Dat’s what Riker said.” He sounded thoughtful, “Gundam pilots.” Marshall shook his head as we slowed in front of the panel, “Ya look too young to have been doin’ more than settin’ off fireworks. It’s scary what the world does dese days.”
“That was deep man.” I chuckled sardonically, jimmying the door off the access panel with my knife, “Alright Ro, M’in. How are the other’s doing.”
“Quatre’s group is taking heavy fire. The teleporter has been destroyed and Chang’s group is in route to provide the other’s with back up. Once you’ve gotten me back in the system Quatre wants you to head to the other access points so that we can catch them in a pincer movement.”
It’s funny. I joined the war effort out of spite really. I was angry at everything, and I didn’t have something at which to direct that anger so…I became a Gundam Pilot. I don’t know that I ever really even though about it. Not like I should have. The anger burned hot and bright and, well, I didn’t know what to do with it. So I set off with a huge chip on my shoulder and a gut full of self-righteous indignation. And then I arrived on earth… and it had been so beautiful. And I’d met Trowa, who was kind and quiet and looking back, I realize he didn’t really know why he was fighting either. But then, then things had started to go wrong. So wrong. It had still taken me a long time, and a devastating bout with the Zero system, to realize that I had no idea what I was fighting for. A lot of people had died for me to come to that realization and I got to live with that every night when I went to sleep and every morning when I woke up. I wondered now, as we fought back the unending tide of heavily armed and angry women, if this had started the same way. Frustration turned to anger, anger turned to hatred, and hatred turned to killing rage.
“How are you doing Sally?” I shouted over the din of battle.
Sally grunted as she landed on the floor next to me and began hurriedly reloading, “I’m starting to run low. I can’t believe there are this many of them. Even taken by surprise, this is ridiculous.”
“Fucking hell!” Riker’s cry broke over the noise, “Take this you bastards.” And a grenade was lobbed through the doorway. The resulting explosion shook the ground and screams shattered the air. There was a pile of bodies blocking the door, which was slowing the entry of the others and allowing us to pick off anyone stupid enough to try and get through to us. “That was my last one.” Riker hollered as she dove for cover next to us. “I hope the blokes get here soon, we could use some bloody back up.”
I paused listening to my comm., “Heero says that Muhammad and Wufei are on their way.”
“So I heard. And thank god for that.” Riker shouted back.
Another explosion rocked the room, and from the sound of it, our back up had arrived. The onslaught was suddenly diverted, shifting away from trying to break through to us and turning to face the newest attackers. I motioned for us to advance and we edged toward the door keeping to cover as best we could. Once it was clear that we were no longer a point of interest, we moved out further still and began helping to finish the last standing. It was a miracle we were alive, let alone winning. I took it for the grace of Allah that it was and didn’t question it.
When I caught sight of Muhammad I nearly dropped my gun. Only the instincts of nearly two years of constant fighting kept it in my hand. His hair was singed off, the skin of his face and chest shredded and his clothing little more than rags. What could only be metal shown through the ragged remnants of his flesh. “Oh Allah!”
Muhammad raised what was left of his right eyebrow الله والسلام عليكم وصديقي.
Stunned, I relied faintly, “And you as well.”
“Gawk later,” Riker barked, bringing me back to my sense, “We’ve got to get through while we’ve got a chance.”
Sally was staring as well, but she recovered quickly. She filled them in on what we had been able to scout out before we’d been cornered in the room. There was only one access point to the bunker on this side. They didn’t seem to have access to heavy artillery but what they did have was enough to keep us a bay. I glanced at Muhammad and wondered if that was still the case. We had tried to rush the door a couple of times but had nothing but a hole in sally’s arm and one in my leg to show for it.
“There’s another way in.”
We spun at the sound of Duo’s voice, he and Marshall were picking their way through the fallen bodies, he paused monetarily to stare at Muhammad and Marshall groaned, “Mon that’s gonna take me days to fix. And I just got that neural net working too. Damn it man!
Heero broke over the comm, “I accessed their communications net work they are regrouping to send their main strength against you, they know that the teleporter is down and they are re routing every one to make a final stand at the bunker. Duo will lead you to the alternative access point, Marshall will be required to guard the entrance because he won’t fit. You’ll need to move quickly I estimate that they will have regrouped and begin their counter offensive in the less than 3.27 minuets.”
“Alright people move. Duo go. Go!”
We started racing after him, leaping over strew corpses and scrabbling over piles of debris. My leg ached fiercely with each step but I ignored it. The access point was a ventilation shaft; Muhammad took point followed by Wufei, Riker followed. Sally started to crawl after him but I held her back. “Your arm might give out. Stay here and help Marshall.” She looked like she wanted to object but didn’t, her mouth forming a tight line. I slid in last, the shot to my leg had gone clean through and I’d been able to bandage it quickly. I hadn’t lost much blood and it would still take my weight. Even so I could see that she wanted to make the same case for me but I needed to be there. But just as my feet hit the shaft Heero broke over the radio. “I have two teams advancing on your position, find cover immediately.”
I hopped out of the shaft and ran for cover with the others behind a door that had been blown half off its hinges and out into the hall. I advanced all the way into the room and, with Sally’s help managed to drag a desk out to sever as additional cover. Marshall was already returning fire by the time we were in position again and I silently bemoaned the fact that we hadn’t had time to see if the others had any more ammunition.
* * *
It was an unfamiliar feeling for me, to be on the sidelines when others were risking their lives for a cause in which I believed. It was also a great deal more anxiety inducing. Who would have thought that it was harder not to act?
“Duo repeat, you’re breaking up.” I said as static crackled across the line
“ztzzz think that ztzz zzzzz shealding ztzzzz….”
“Duo? Duo!” Damn it
“Yes?” I breathed a sigh of relief at Winner prompt response, “I’ve lost the connection to Duo’s team, I think there is shielding in the bunker.”
“Can you follow?”
“Negative, we’re pinned down and running out of ammo.”
I swore virulently under my breath, he might have mentioned that sooner. “I’m going to see what I can do about the shielding.” I replied, already tapping though the schematics of the building, “I’ll get back to you.”
* * *
Damn. Stupid shielding. I landed in a crouch behind the others, “Anything?” I whispered.
“Negative.” Came Muhammad’s soft response, “I’m scanning, give me a moment—there, access point.”
We moved quietly, and as we got closer I saw the outline of a door, we moved toward it, giving Muhammad room to take point, but as his hand moved toward it, it was flung open and a hail of bullets sent us scattering for cover, well all of us but Muhammad. I grunted as I landed hard on the cement floor, rolling behind a steel support beam. My head jerked up at the sound of a sharp scream and then I was fighting for my life. They came at us like a wave, it was impossible to tell where one woman stopped and the next began. The only consolation was that in such close proximity they couldn’t use their guns.
I love fighting classically trained fighters. I learned on the street, and there anything and everything goes, but these classically trained chicks, shit, I think one of them actually took up a fighting stance. I kicked her in the shin and got to watch the look of bemusement on her face as she hunch over in pain and I sent her to the ground with a elbow to the temple. Then I was gouging eyes, pulling hair, hell I think I even bit somebody, but the circle around my loosened as I caught knees and shins with my steel capped boots, thrust elbow into rib cages, broke noses and came back for more. Fuck yes, step up and dance with Shimgami lady.
The tide began to ebb, the ground littered with black clad women, broken and bleeding. But we were not without our own losses. My eyes fell on Riker, eyes wide and starring. She had a hole in her head; I glanced around quickly and located the others, alive if not whole. Muhammad stood in the center of the room; a heap of bodies surrounded him. But when his eyes fell on Riker’s body he froze. Slowly, he moved to where Riker lay, his hands were steady as he gently closer her eyes, but his voice shook as he spoke, it was in Arabic so I didn’t know the words, but I knew the tune. God keep you, rest in peace. I shook my head, suddenly sick. Another one of mine. I looked to Wufei, who was bruised and limping. He nodded toward me the tightness around his eyes spoke of his pain, whether physical or emotional, however, I wasn’t sure.
“You’ll need to stanch that Maxwell.”
I glanced down at the hole in my thigh. Well fuck, when did that happen? I pulled a tourniquet scarf out of my pocket and tided it jut above the leaking wound. “What about you?”
“I will live.” He said evenly, “There can’t be many more than that.”
“No.” A cool, female voice said from the door and we whirled to face it. Fuck, I snarled mentally, we could have all died chatting. A woman stood in the doorway. Her hair gray, her face lined with age and pain but her eyes were hard and she wore a determined expression and she had a bomb strapped to her chest. “There are no more. Those were the last of my daughters.” She held her head high, “My name is Angelina Grey. I believe that I am the one you are looking for.” There wasn’t enough flesh left on Muhammad’s face for an expression, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the other side of the stare. She blinked in surprise then, “And what manner of creature are you?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He spat angrily
“No, I suppose it doesn’t.” She agreed, her calm returning.
I eyed the bomb, I wasn’t sure the others had even noticed it, but it was armed and she wasn’t holding a trigger which meant that she had just set the fucker to countdown. She wasn’t bluffing; she was just going to calmly send us all to oblivion. But she wanted to talk first.
“The others that came with you, they will live to speak about this day. Some of them. They will tell the world what they witness. There are others, will be other, like me. They will tell the world what they witness here, and then, perhaps, the world will listen when we speak.”
“What others?” Wufei demanded, “I thought you said that was the last.”
“Here. But there are others. Other cells, waiting. They will come of age and it will begin again. Forever and ever. Amen.”
“Where?” Muhammad demanded
She smiled, it was utterly serene. Ah grandstanding. I pulled my gun from its holster and put a bullet though her head, she looked momentarily surprised as she toppled back.
“Maxwell!” Wufei shouted as Muhammad shouted,
“She’s wearing a fucking bomb.” I yelled as I raced to where she had fallen. I pulled the jack that was obscuring most f the bomb away and groaned, Jesus fucking Christ on the fucking cross, there was less than twenty seconds remaining. There wasn’t time. Fuck, fuck fuck.
“There isn’t time!” I yelled and Muhammad was there scooping her up and barreling through the door she had entered. “Find cover!” I screamed, scrambling to my feet just as the explosion threw me back to the ground. The floor seemed to leap up to meet me and then there was nothing but darkness.
* * *
I felt the explosion where I sat in front of the computer. I was out of my chair and sprinting toward the rising pillar of smoke before conscious thought had time to register. I leapt over piles of ruble and dead bodies, ignoring both in my haste. Blueprints flashed through my mind as I raced farther into the complex. I skidded to a halt outside of the ventilations shaft. There was a hand poking out of the ruble half shielded behind the remnants of a door. Frantically I started digging, revealing a hand and then a torso.
“Winner! Winner! Quatre!” I screamed. Winner blinked open bleary eyes, struggling to focus, “Quatre where are the others?”
“Others?” He said mussily, his words slurring, “others. Shaft?”
“Didn’t some stay out with you?”
Quatre nodded and then winced, “Sally. Marshall.”
I dug through the wreckage, until I found a second body. It was Marshall, his back had been broken and he lay at a terrifyingly wrong angle. I shoved him aside and kept digging. Finally I uncovered Sally, “Agent Po!” I barked.
“I’m here Heero.” Sally’s voice answered tiredly, “I’m here.” I dug her the rest of the way out and then hissed, She’d been shot in the back, a red wound torn further by the explosion. “Don’t move.” I ordered, I have to go find the others.
“Heero,” she said weakly, “Heero you have to go for help, or none of us is going to make it.”
“Go Heero,” She coughed raggedly and nearly screamed from the pain it caused, “Go!”
And I went. I ran as I have never run, screaming into first my own radio and then after hacking into the nation wide net works, to every station I could pirate. I pulled all eyes to this tiny little dot in the middle of no where. I called every number I could think of, I called Relena, I called the Preventers, I even called Hilde. They were dying and who knew how long it was going to take rescue to come.
Too long. I felt…hollow but at the same time there was this strange constriction in my chest; it made it difficult to breathe. Yet, I knew that I had sustained no injury. I didn’t understand. I wanted to go back, to help, but my hands had never been taught to heal, only to kill, so I waited for those that could help, I waited and I worried. When the dot of the first medvac plane appeared in the sky I felt the strange constriction within my chest loosen, if slightly. I half dragged the medic from the plane, and when he couldn’t move fast enough for me, I threw him over my shoulder, medical supplies and all, and ran the rest of the way. I set him down wide eyed in front of Quatre who was terribly still. My eyes strayed to the ventilation shaft, but when I looked down it, the shaft had been pulled away, mangled in the explosion.
“There were others, I’m going to find them!” I called sprinting to the other access point that we’d been unable to breach before. The other medics were arriving as I left, picking their way through the bodies faces stunned and eyes wide.
I rammed my way through the door. The bunker had been designed to withstand more than what the bomb had been capable of but it had incinerated everything in the room. In the middle of the room lay a charred corpse, and what must have been Muhammad. The metal of his body gleamed oddly in the light thrown from the door. “Muhammad?” I called as I worked my way toward him.
“I’m here.” His voice had an odd electronic reverberation, “I’m having to reroute some of my operating systems.” He explained, voice still buzzing, “the others…check…”
“I’ll look for them.” I said dejectedly, the tightness was back. I coughed hard, trying to clear my throat. I pushed mechanically through more twisted metal and collapsed rubble from the ceiling, until finally I came up against a door that I couldn’t shift. “Duo?” I called testing the door again.
“Hey Ro, you don’t happen to have a key on you do you? Only we seem to have lost ours.”
I laughed out loud, “No, but I’ll find a way. Hold on.”
“It Muhammad ok?” Wufei called, his voice sounded odd.
“He’s ok, for a given value of ok.” I replied stepping back to take a look at the door. It was a blast door! It must have triggered when the bomb went off. Thank god for small favors.
“What does that mean Yuy?”
“It means that he’s looked better but I think he’ll survive. I have to find the manual override, I’ll be back.”
“What for Muhammad?” Duo shouted back, confused.
“No baka, for the door. Hold on.”
* * *
The next forty-eight hours were how I picture hell will be. Q and Sally were air lifted to the nearest hospital, both unconscious with poor vitals. By the time Heero had managed to get us free, medic personal were everywhere and we were dragged away, Wufei cursing a blue streak about wanting to find Muhammad. Heero promised to look for him, but when he’d met back up with us at the choppers, Muhammad hadn’t been with him. Luckily Wufei had passed out by that point. Truth be told, I wasn’t doing much better myself. Even with the tourniquet I’d a lost a lot of blood, and the world was starting to feel soft around the edges. Heero kept me talking, I have no idea about what, until we landed and I could get the transfusion that I so desperately needed.
Wufei and I were patched up fairly quickly, and turned out in time to see them take Sally back in for another surgery. There was pressure on the spinal cord, a build up of fluid they were trying to drain without damaging her spine. Q had fallen into a coma and they didn’t know when, or if he’d wake.
I was sitting in a hard plastic seat out side Sally’s operating room, when a familiar face appeared in my field of vision.
“Mornin’ Commander Une.” I said dully.
“Hello Mr. Maxwell,” she replied briskly, “I understand Agent Po is currently in surgery?”
“Where is Agent Riker?”
I blinked, Jesus you think someone would have told her, “She’s dead commander, so is Marshall.”
Une’s eyes widened fractionally and her mouth tightened, “I see. Where is Agent Chang?”
I shook my head, “I don’t know, he was here.” I glanced around, “He might have gone to get something to eat, or to look for Muhammad.”
Her nodded and took a seat by me, “Then I shall wait. They tell me that this is her third surgery?”
I sighed, “Yeah. They’re trying to get rid of fluid build up in her spinal column, it’s, um, not working real well.”
Une, sitting stiff backed in her plastic chair, glared at the opposite wall, as if by sheer force of will she could make this surgery succeed where the others had failed. We sat like that for the next three hours, until a doctor emerged from the scrub room, and came to give us the news.
* * *
I found Muhammad in the shuttle we had taken from L2, he still looked alien, dessert light flashing off the metal of his exoskeleton, but I could see that he had repaired most of the damage.
“I thought I might find you here.” I said, as I leaned against the wall of the shuttle, “Can you repair the damage?”
He nodded, “Yes.” His voice was back to the melodious baritone he’d had previously, “Marshall,” his voice hitched on the name and then he continued, “left me with the tools required. It will take time, but I have already repaired my neural net which was the most difficult.”
“I thought you would want to know that Wufei is going to be ok.”
He glanced up, and even without the flesh to form the expression his look was wry, “I know. I stayed long enough to hear him cursing your ancestry back several generations and decided that he would be well.”
I laughed. “When should I tell him to expect you?”
He glanced down at the tools his hands and seemed to hesitate. “Shortly.” He said finally.”
* * *
This meeting was a joke. Q was in a coma, Sally was paralyzed from the waist down, possibly for life, Riker and Marshall were dead and Muhammad was MIA, and all Une could do was call a debriefing. Dear god I’m glad I never joined the Preventers; I’d have had to strangle somebody with all the fucking red tape.
“Now, as I said previously” Une droned on, blah, blah, blah. She seemed to be saying, without actually saying it, that while we’d had casualties it was all ok because we got the baddy. And people think she’s changed. Riiiiight. I glanced across the room and saw Wufei, looking like he should be in a sick bed I might add, staring at the door. The little time that I’d spent with Fei had led me to believe that he’d gobble up stuff like this with a spoon, so I had to admit that I was surprised to find him so inattentive, until I remembered that Sally was his partner. Fuck. Poor guy. And he’d been working with Riker and her group for a while; this must royally suck for him.
“…my main concern is that Yuy was not present for the actual infiltration.”
My ears pricked up; oh no she did not just say that.
“Yuy why did you not enter with the rest of the team.”
I saw Wufei’s head turn as he momentarily reentered the conversation, he looked to Heero, who stared back placidly, “it was decided that I would stay outside and coordinate the efforts of the team, along with jamming the teleportation frequency.”
Une frowned, “Surly Winner could have done that.” Oh. My. Fucking. God. She’s gonna try and pin this on Heero. “Heero your expertise could have tipped the scale, you should have been there.”
“Actually no.” I said loudly, “Some more of your fucking agents should have been there. We don’t work for you lady, in case you forgot, and we just pulled your ass out of the fire. If not for Heero, Riker and her group would still be trying to find a way to get the information to you. So you show some goddamn gratitude instead of passing the buck.” I shoved away from the table, “And as far as I’m concerned this fucking meeting is now over. I gotta friend in a coma, I’m gonna go sit with him. Common ‘Ro.”
“Maxwell!” Wufei shouted, clearly outraged.
“Stow it Chang.”
And I followed Heero out of the room.
* * *
I stood up as Muhammad entered the room. He was…whole again, the metal underneath his skin no longer visible, but his hair looked odd, shaved so close to his head. Muhammad ran a hand over his close cropped hair and grinned ruefully.
“I suppose that it was past time for a haircut.”
“Are you…well?” I asked uncertainly
Muhammad cleared his throat, “I—yes. I’m fine. The damage to—I’m fine.”
I nodded jerkily, my eyes scanning over Muhammad. “I’m sorry, about the others.”
Muhammad’s face fell and his eyes seemed suddenly old. “As am I.” he said tiredly.
“What will you do now?”
Muhammad hesitated and then shrugged, his movements as fluid as ever, “I don’t know.” He licked his lips; it was strange to see him so uncertain. At odds with the confident man he normally was. “Wufei…
When he failed to continue I asked, “Yes?”
Muhammad swallowed, “I—you have seen what I am. I know that—”he broke off and laughed mirthlessly. “I… care for you. I would—is it possible that you can feel as I feel?”
I shrugged uncomfortably. This was what I had been dreading. I didn’t know how I felt. I hadn’t gotten much past that ridicules argument I’d had with myself before entering the compound, what felt like weeks ago now. I wasn’t even sure—
“You said, you said that you could feel, physically, as I do.” I began slowly, “Are you able…” I had to let the sentence trail off, not knowing how to proceed.
“You want to how a machine could actually care for someone?” Muhammad asked bitterly and I winced. “As simple no would have been sufficient.” Muhammad said thickly, turning to leave.
“No!” I cried, grabbing his arm. Muhammad looked back, startled but not as startled I was. “I, that’s not—” I floundered, “I’ve never done this before!” I snapped angrily. Anger. That I knew how to deal with, it was the only familiar feeling coursing through me at the moment and I grabbed onto it like a life line. “I never thought to enter into a relationship again. Not after,” I shook my head, old memories welling up and I shoved them back down, even still my voice was harsh when I went on, “I don’t know what I’m doing and it is unfair of you to act as if I should.”
Muhammad stared at me wide eyed. Finally he asked, “Wufei, how old are you? Really?
My mouth fell open and I closed it hard enough to make my teeth click together. “I—what can that possibly have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head, “Nothing? Everything? It’s just… I think that I’ve…you really are fifteen aren’t you.”
At this point I confess to being utterly off balance, finally I nodded, “Yes. I’m fifteen. Why?”
“Because…because I’m a great deal older than you.” He said darkly, “And a great deal more cynical. And I think I’ve done you a grave disservice.” I opened my mouth but he held up a hand to forestall me, “I’m sorry Wufei.” His shoulders hunched, “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge, it’s just…I’ve been hurt,” he glanced away, “A lot in the past when I told my lovers…” he left the rest unsaid, shifting uneasily. “In answer to your very fair question, I don’t know that I was intended to…to be able to care for people. I—probably not. But I can.” He turned and looked at me then, his eyes desperate for me to believe him, “I swear to you I can. I am not a thing.” It sounded almost like a mantra. And in spite of myself I moved toward him, the pain in his voice hurt me as if I’d been wounded some how.
“I don’t think of you as a thing.” I answered, stopping arm’s length from him. “I don’t.”
He nodded, “Thank you.” He said it so quietly I almost didn’t hear him. He swallowed again, and shook his head, “I, I should not have come here. Should not have forced this decision on you.” He said finally, still shaking his head as he backed away. “It is an honor to have met you Agent Chang.” He said formally, his eyes still not meeting mine. “I hope—
“No!” Again I caught hold of him, pulling him toward me and pressing my lips to his. He stiffened for a moment and then his arms went around me and I held on to him for dear life as the fire swept through me again. I realized that it had never truly gone, just been banked for a time. At his touch it was back and roaring through me, obliterating thought and reason, leaving nothing but a white hot streak in its wake. Finally I pulled back, gasping for breath. Muhammad looked stunned. I had to admit to being somewhat taken aback myself. “I do not want you to go.” I said in a rush, afraid that if I stopped to think, I’d come to my senses before I got it all out. “I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve never even kissed someone before you. I had no idea that I was attracted to men, and yes you’re being an android is—Yes I have questions, but I don’t want you to go.” I finished out of breath.
I will not say that I clung to him, but I did hold on to him more tightly than was actually warranted. It wasn’t like I could actually stop him from leaving if he really wanted to. “Please don’t go.” I said again at the thought.
“I’m—no. I won’t go. If you really want me to stay.” He looked at me wonderingly. “I came here prepared for you to reject me.” He said finally. “I expected you to reject me. I never thought…but you, you know.” He seemed confused.
“About you being an android? Yes. I cannot say that I don’t have questions but…” I shook my head, “Can we sit down? Please?”
Muhammad nodded letting go of me to take a chair. I took a seat beside him and asked, “First I must know, what is it that you are looking for between us? I am a man of honor and I will not be used as a common whore.” It came out stiff and formal, a side affect of my uncertainty.
Muhammad blinked in surprise and then frowned, “Wufei, no. I have no wish to use you. I won’t touch you again if you don’t wish it. I am sorry about my behavior yesterday, it was uncalled for, I just… I just could not stand for you to look at me like that…”
A small knot of tension unwound itself in my chest and I nodded, “Good.” I blinked and realized that I had absolutely no idea what to do next, I looked a Muhammad for help, but he just stared back until if finally said, “I have no idea where to go from here.”
Muhammad blinked and then chuckled, “fair enough.” He took a deep breathe, “Change Wufei, would you do me the honor of allowing me to court you?”
I gave a startled laugh and smiled, “You don’t need to be that formal.”
Muhammad grinned, “Well you said that you were a man of honor, I’m just covering my bases.”
It was good to see him smile, it was the first time that he’d done so since entering the room. He looked more like himself, even with the haircut. I shifted closer, “I’ve made this more difficult than need be.” I muttered
But Muhammad shook his head, “No, I think that was me.” When I started to object, he said, “No, not my being an android, my jumping to conclusions. I didn’t use to.” He added wistfully.
“Oh, one too many people that I cared about took to their heels when they found out that I wasn’t what I seemed to be. I supposed finding out that the man you’ve been sharing a bed with is not human can have that affect but,” he lifted one shoulder in a half shrug, “I kept hoping that they’d be able to get past that. These were men that I cared about, and had professed to care about me.” He sighed, “I’m sorry. I seem to be abysmal company. It’s just that the only two people who ever took me for me rather than how I was made, are no longer on this earth.” A tear slid down his cheek. “I knew the day would come, but the knowing hasn’t made it any easier.”
Again I felt pain at his sadness and I grabbed his hand and pulled him to me. He laid his head on my shoulder and wept and I held him, knowing exactly what it was like to loose the only people in the world that meant anything to you.
* * *
“That ungrateful bitch.” I announced to the room in general as I collapsed into an over stuffed chair.
Heero glanced up from his laptop, eye brow raised. “The nurse can’t have been that bad.”
I barked a laugh, “Oh my god, Yuy, did you just make a joke?”
“I thought we might be playing at role reversal since you’re the one glaring draggers at the world, I thought I’d try out your part for a bit.”
I stared wonderingly at him, “How can you not be furious?” I thumped the arm of the chair, “Une was way outta line!”
Heero closed the laptop and moved to sit across from me, “I wanted to thank you.” He said quietly, “for standing up for me with Une. That was….thank you.”
I leaned forward and pulled him into a hug. “Heero you listen to me. No one, certainly not that loony toones of a commander, has the right to say what she said to you, do you understand me? You deserve to be respected just as much—probably more—than anyone else on this planet.” I leaned back so I could look him in the eye, “And I swear to you, if you ever let some one talk to you like that again, I will thump you upside the head.”
His mouth quirked in a small smile, “Right after you’ve finished ripping the person a new one?”
I nodded, grinning, “Yes. Right after I’ve finished ripping them a new one.” My smile slipped, “They’re gonna transfer Q to a better hospital. I think we should go with them.”
Heero nodded and I sighed hugging him. This sucked.
* * *
“The Preventers?” Muhammad asked doubtfully, eyeing the informational pamphlet in his hand.
“You have to do something.” I said, shrugging out of my jacket, “and I’m in need of a partner now that Sally…” I let the sentence trail off. It was still hard to believe that Sally has been paralyzed. She had always been so full of life, to see her in that chair broke my heart. She was determined that she would walk again though. If anyone could do it, she could.
Muhammad looked up sharply, “Sally will be walking again before you know it.” He stated firmly, “And then where will I be?”
“In a threesome.” Sally said from the doorway. She wheeled herself in deftly, “It’s a good idea Muhammad.” I hadn’t told Sally about my feelings for Muhammad, and to my knowledge Muhammad hadn’t spoken of it to anyone either, but somehow Sally seemed to know.
Muhammad shook his head, “I appreciate the sentiment, Agent Po, but I fear that someone in my unique position—
“Nonsense.” Sally cut him off cheerfully, “Une already employees a former Gundum terrorist and an ex-gorilla militia general.” She grinned, “You’d be right at home.”
“I can’t die.” He said abruptly. Eventually, someone is going to notice that I don’t age, and that I don’t receive wounds like a normal man.”
“Neither does Yuy.” I put in. “And the Preventers all accepted him when he worked for Relena. Trust me Muhammad you won’t raise anymore eyebrows than Yuy or Maxwell. The pair of them should be enough to send up red flags from here to L3 but they never did.”
Muhammad sighed theatrically, “I’m running out of excuses.” He said, shaking a finger at us.
“Then come.” I said simply. We hadn’t talked much since yesterday. I had learned the Muhammad didn’t need to sleep, but he had picked up the habit over the years. He’d eventually cried himself out and had let me lead him to his assigned room and put him to bed. I‘d watched over him for a while, wondering at myself. I’d never been so forward, not even with Marian, but the very sight of him made my blood sing and it was only getting worse. When I’d come back from talking to Yuy and Maxwell, they would be leaving for L2 shortly, and found him in my room looking over the pamphlet I’d left out for him, my stomach had tightened so painfully that I had to stop and catch my breath. The sensation hadn’t been unpleasant, however, and I was practically vibrating with his nearness.
He nodded, “I will give it some thought.” He glanced up at Sally, “And how are you doing?”
Sally held up her and wobbled it back and forth, “So, so. There are good moments and bad. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, to tell the truth. But like they say, one day at a time.”
* * *
I came back from seeing the others off to find Muhammad sitting up in our shared sitting room, a book in his lap.
“You’re up late.” I said, angling my head to see what he was reading.
He glanced up and smiled, lifting the book so that I could see the title. “I don’t actually need to sleep.” He said softly, mindful of the other rooms that joined the sitting room.
He seemed hesitant, as he always did when speaking of something regarding his true nature. I jerked my head in the direction of my room and he followed. When the door was closed I said, “You don’t have to do that you know.”
Muhammad raised an eyebrow and I elaborated, “Try to pretend that you’re not an android for my sake. If you don’t like to be reminded of it that’s fine, but…” I shrugged uncomfortably
“I’m trying to find a way to put this that won’t be insulting.” I explained and he chuckled.
“I’m not so thin skinned as is it seemed yesterday. It had just been… a rough day. Say it.”
“I named my Gundum.” I said slowly, “Nataku. It was the name my wife used.”
Muhammad’s eyes opened wide, “Your wife? You were married? They failed to mention that in the files.”
My eyes narrowed, “What files?”
The files they have on you at the Preventers, he explained casually, “Oh don’t frown like that Wufei I’m black ops, it’s what I do. I always research the people I’m going to be working with.”
I scowled at him, “we’re not done with this. But, yes. I was married when I was fourteen. We didn’t consummate the marriage, naturally. We would do that when we came of age. It was an arranged marriage. She, my wife, her name was Marian, was actually the intended pilot for shen-long. She was killed by an Oz attack and I took up the fight in her memory.” I shook my head, the pain dulled but not forgotten. Never forgotten. “She called herself Nataku. And so I named my Gundum. I got used to thinking of my Gundum as…as a person. She was my friend. The only one I had after my colony was destroyed.” I stopped for a moment and then said, “What I’m trying to say is that I don’t have a problem with…” I struggled for the words.
Muhammad placed a hand on my cheek, his thumb rubbing across my cheek bone, “I understand. The reason I don’t like to speak of it because,” his eyes slid away. “There were a few who said that they were not bothered by it. They stayed oh, one stayed for a whole month, but in the end the weirdness was too difficult for them. So, I am trying not to remind you of the weirdness.”
“I do not mind being reminded.” I said firmly, pressing my face into his hand. We moved together, our lips meeting and again the fire surged. My hands traced his body and I felt his do the same. One brushed my hip and I shivered breaking the kiss, to moan softly. He pulled me closer and I felt what I realized was his erection, brushing my inner thigh and that made me moan again.
“Tell me what you want.” He whispered
“I don’t know.” I whispered back. It was all so overwhelming.
He nodded against my neck pulling me closer, “We can stop?” He offered “We can wait. I can wait.” But his body belied his words. I could feel the bulge in his pants and I knew that he could feel the answering one in mine.
“I don’t want to stop.” I said breathlessly, I tugged him toward the bed and he followed his eyes warm.
“Tell me when you do.” He insisted.
I wasn’t sure I deserved such kindness. I felt self conscious and unsure of myself as I pulled him down with me. We hit the bed awkwardly and half fell, him landing on top of me. He moved to get off but I stopped him before I had a chance to think about it. “Stay.” He nodded shivering and I pulled his head down.
The kiss lasted even longer this time, but there was a urge building in me that I didn’t know what to do with, I wanted more but I wasn’t sure… “Muhammad?” I asked breathlessly
Something of the confusion must have come across in my voice because he kissed me gently and then said, “Anything. I swear it.”
“Muhammad… please?” I didn’t even know what I was asking for. But when his hand slid down and cupped my straining erection I bucked up into his hand as if I’d been waiting for it. I cried out in shock at the sensation and Muhammad’s hand jerked away immediately.
“Wufei?” He asked uncertainly.
I pulled him fully on top of me, “More.” Was all I could get out. His hand returned and began to stroke me through the material of my pants. It wasn’t enough. I rocked my hips up to meet him timing my thrust with his.
He kissed me fiercely and the asked, “may I remove you pants?”
I had realized during my time with Muhammad that how formally he spoke was an indication of how flustered he was. It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who was out of his depth here. I arched my hips and began tugging at the material, Muhammad’s hand moved to help and I was quickly divested of pants. I heard Muhammad’s breathe catch. I was not wearing undergarments. And then his head disappeared out of view and warm heat enveloped my straining cock. Ancestors, I have died and walk in the celestial gardens. Nothing has ever felt this good. Nothing. I struggled against the sensations swamping me. The sucking pressure was the most exquisitely sweet torture that I had ever known. I was sobbing Muhammad’s name at this point. Over and over, begging him not to stop. Not to ever stop. “Thank you. Oh ancestors, thank you.” I was still thanking him as my vision cleared from the most amazing orgasm I had ever had. He pulled me close, raining kisses all over my face.
“Are you ok?” He asked, voice rough. “I should have asked. I’m sorry Wufei, I should have asked first. And after I promised…” he seemed genuinely upset, so I roused my
self to hush him with my mouth against his.
“That was pure bliss.” I said unsteadily, “Why on earth would you need to ask first?”
Muhammad pulled me close, “Yesterday, I promised. I said that I wouldn’t touch you unless you wished it…I am so sorry.”
“Muhammad, stop.” I sat up so that I could better see his face, he was truly upset. “Muhammad, I wanted,” I shivered, “I didn’t know what I wanted. I….I need for you to take the lead.” I said slowly, “I, I want you to take the lead.” I said, amazed at the truth of the statement. “I don’t know enough to know what I want. But that.” I closed my eyes as memory swamped me, “That was amazing.”
Muhammad looked relived, “Allah be praised.” He said softly and then sighed, pulling me closer, “I’m not normally this jumpy.” He promised, “but the idea that you might think that I was just using you.” He shook his head, “I would never.” He finished fiercely
“Muhammad.” I said, hugging him, “I owe you a great many apologies. I knew that you weren’t going to use me. I knew it then and I know it now. I was stalling.” I sighed, “I do things like that when I’m nervous. I’m not…good at being uncertain, so I like to shift the blame onto others. And to do that to you yesterday, after everything else, it was just cruel. No.” I cut him off with a kiss as he tried to speak, “I want you to know, as of right now, that there is no place on my body that is off limits to you. No action. Nothing.” I swallowed, it was a scary statement but still true. I wanted him to take me into his mouth again. I wanted his hands on me. I wanted, I wanted him to take me fully and I knew it.
“Easy. We’re not going to move that fast.”
Part of me was relieved, but another part of me was disappointed. The part that wanted to be thrown down on the bed and fucked. Hard. I hadn’t known that I even possessed such a desire. But there it was, burning into my brain. I shook my head and gave him a shaky grin, “I wish to reciprocate.”
As expected, he frowned and said, “You don’t have to.”
“Yes,” I said, flipping him over, “I’m aware of that. That would, of course, be why I said, “wish” rather than “should.”
Muhammad chuckled, “you” he replied pleasantly, “are a smart ass.”
“mmm.” I hummed in agreement, sliding my hand over his erection and he shivered, “How is the thing done?”
He laughed, a beautiful, full throated sound, “think of what you would like done, and then” he raised an eyebrow grinning. I snorted, and then eyed his erection again, and then, very slowly took him into my mouth. The first thing that struck me was the taste; a salty musk. I had to admit that I was surprised that the scientist had gone into that much detail. Something of that must have shown on my face because he chuckled again, “That’s my own tinkering.” I raised my head, and looked at him quizzically. “Oh, I was built anatomically correct, we needed to be able to pass for human after all, but the more, shall we say, intimate nature, that I engineered.”
He laughed again, “For sex of course.”
That surprised a laugh out of me, “What?”
He pulled me to him, wrapping his arms around me, “at first I was curious. Sex was something that was so human, and I wanted more than anything to be human. So I read up, and I thought I’d give it a try. Then?” he snickered, “Then I was hooked. I find that there is little better in the world than sex.” I snorted and he laughed, “don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
“Well I was trying, and then some how became distracted.”
“So you did. We should remedy that.”
I slid back down on him and after toying with him for a bit— apparently conversation was not particularly stimulating—once he was erect again I took him into my mouth, and gagged almost immediately. He pulled me back, “Easy. Don’t try to take all of it, that only works in the movies.”
“I have no idea what type of movies you’ve been watching.” I muttered, embarrassed. He hadn’t seemed to have a problem. But I tried again, going more slowly. I could only get about half of him in my mouth, but when I started actively sucking that didn’t seem to be much a problem. He began to make extremely satisfying sounds, slowly leaning back and arching his hips. I smiled around his cock, and then swallowed hard. He grunted and came; it was…a strange taste, slightly metallic, though I didn’t know if that was normal or just him. I sat up and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. Muhammad had his eyes closed and sighed contently. “Oh, that was—” he sighed again happily, “That was wonderful. Thank you.”
In spite of myself, I felt pleased at the praise. I rolled my eyes at myself and then lay down next to him. “Come work at the Preventers with me.”
He opened his eyes and slid a hand along the side of my face, “I will go anywhere with you.”
I felt something loosen in my chest and shifted slightly closer, he wrapped his arms around me and I allowed myself to drift off knowing that he would still be there when I woke.
* * *
I am not a weapon. I am not perfect. And I am no longer a soldier. I am human, flesh and blood. Those emotions which are the legacy of that humanity raged in me now as I sat watching the monitor that was the only proof that Quatre Winner yet lived. Duo Maxwell, one of the few people that I called friend, slept fitfully in the chair next to me, his head on my shoulder, wracked by the same nightmares that had plagued him since before the war. I had been trained past the endurance of many men and I came out—as far as the war effort was concerned—the better for it. But over the past few months I began to understand what was taken from me in order that I might achieve what I did. My eyes slid to Duo and for the first time an alien thought intruded into my certainty. Had it been truly necessary? These same men had plotted the domination of earth, not merely the freedom of the colonies. Was the complete disruption of our lives a requirement… or merely an interesting experiment? Like watching women “hop-scotch around the world killing people?” I meant what I said at the end of the Mariemaia flare up. I am no longer required to kill. And I will not. Duo has helped me to keep that promise, even in the face of a world wide assault, and—even more unsettling—commander Une.
Dr. J was right to worry about my interacting with others; Duo has helped me start questioning, to rebel. Because, ultimately, humanity can only be suppressed, it cannot be eliminated. Of the emotions that are now raging through my mind I begin to understand, if only just, what I must do. The armor that J had so carefully crafted has begun to fall away, and while I am still physically superior to most grown men, I no longer have the emotional development of a seven year old. I’m at least up to twelve possibly even thirteen.
Now, on the eve of my seventeenth birthday, I am the survivor and victor of two wars. I have been trained as an assassin and as a soldier and now I am required as neither. I have lost my place in the world and in so doing have gained the freedom to chose. I spoke with Duo on the flight over and I’ll be moving in permanently. Duo says that I can bunk with him until we can add another room. And there is the Charity to run. We will have plenty of work waiting for us, and for Quatre.
I tensed, glancing up as the door banged open. Duo’s head shot up, whirling toward the noise. We both starred in amazement as Trowa, not looking at either of us, strode over to the bed, a rather harried looking nurse on his heels. He leaned over Quatre frowning as he ran a hand gently along his face whispering quietly. I blinked as the heart monitor beeped in response. Quatre’s eyes fluttered and then blinked open. He starred up blearily at the figure above him and said, “Trowa.”
The nurse gasped and then hit a button, sounding an alarm that brought more women dressed in white hurrying into the room. Trowa gave Quatre a small smile and said, “Sorry I’m late.”
Quatre smiled back and took his hand, “You can make it up to me latter.”