Notes: Takes place five years after EW
Caveat + Part 10
'Head down!' someone yelled, and Zechs ducked without ever ascertaining if it were directed at him. The chaos on the docks was a roiling, furious mass of humanity. When he stepped up into the Preventers forensics truck, the cave-like echo of the docks abated only slightly. He pulled Neptune up behind him, and she shut them in with a slam.
'How can anyone hear themselves think in all that?' Tropic said crossly. He fell sideways into a chair, eyes already seeking out the monitors. 'What the hell good do they think they're doing, swamping the mines? Who let them?'
'Dock master's in with the extraction teams,' Mèo, one of the locals, told them tensely, wary of insult. Neptune's calming smile seemed to mollify him a little. 'It's their men in there. We got out the families, at least. We've sent them back colony-side.'
'How many have they pulled out so far?' Zechs asked. He crossed his arms on the back of Tropic's chair, trying to make sense out of what he was seeing on the screens. It was one of the larger asteroids that had been hit-- and hit barely captured the enormity of it. 'We have to be thinking bomb at this point.'
'No question.' Sally got the other chair by virtue of rank. She outlined the big raw crater that decorated the side of the asteroid. 'How big is that blast radius?'
'Judging from the damage it did on the outside, there might have been more than the two we registered, maybe even several. What you're looking at there, the big hole, that's what happened after the blast-- that whole area collapsed in.' Mèo reached over Sally's shoulder and pointed to another monitor bearing a map of the mine. 'Best we can figure, there's three tunnels that are gone. Of the other nineteen, they've only been able to clear four.'
'Four?' Sally met Zechs' eyes, and repeated his question for him. 'Casualty count?'
'Twenty as of two hours ago,' was the grim answer.
Zechs quietly left the van. Now that he had some orientation, the chaos took on some recognisable shape; there was a crew working on rubble removal, and there was a make-shift medical tent to deal with injuries, and there was the extraction team support, organising some heavy equipment at the edge of the dock for transport to the mine. And there, hovering at the edge, were reporters, talking animatedly to their cameras and panning over the scene over and over again.
'Agent Wind.' It was the foreman he'd met before, when they'd come to investigate the original instance of sabotage. Zechs shook his hand briefly. 'I can run you through what's happened whenever you're ready, sir.'
'Please.' Zechs held the van door for him, and gave the tired man a boost up. It was getting crowded inside, but Tropic gave up his chair for the foreman, and the rest of them settled to the edges to look at the monitors.
'We opened morning shift with the required safety examinations,' the foreman opened hoarsely. 'Not once in my life have I skipped on that. I had one problem area but it was good as of 0700-- we were shoring up a weak shaft. But it was solid. I checked it myself, and Mine Safety inspected it just the day before, and they passed on it too.' He wiped at the grime on his hands, clenching them on his knees. 'I had four crews in the mine when we felt the first blast at 10:28. We got Third out. First checked in at 10:04 at this junction here, Second checked in at 09:56 at this junction, and Fourth were here as of 10:15.'
'Then Fourth are...' Sally sighed. 'How many were in that crew?'
'Seven. All of them presumed dead. Seven more in Second. Six of our rescuers too--' He fell silent for just one painful moment. 'They went in the second blast.'
A momentary hush fell over the van. Zechs broke it. 'All right,' he said. 'So we've got one crew and how many rescuers still missing?'
'Eight crewmen,' the foreman said, and reached over the Preventer to shift one of the screens to the centre monitor. Time clocks, all counting down in flickers of digital seconds. 'Nine rescuers who were behind the blast and past the secondary junction when it hit. And--'
'Quatre Winner.' Zechs stared glumly at the initials next to that countdown. 'What was he doing there?'
'He's been here almost every day since the first-- first-- incident.' The foreman scrubbed his sallow cheeks. 'After you Preventers were here it seemed safe. He said it was important for people to see him, get to know him-- he's young, you know, he cares about that-- his father sure'n hell never--'
'But he wasn't one of the dead you recovered,' Sally prompted. Her expression had gone smooth and professional, as had Zechs. The foreman may not have meant it as a slap, but it was-- Zechs had closed their inspection here with no results. So what had he missed? And how much blood would he have to count on his hands when they found out?
'No.' The foreman pointed to the clocks. 'Our wi-fi hotspots got knocked out in the blasts, but we have the last broadcast data from their check-ins. We're monitoring their air supply based on the estimate that each of them had their emergency kits-- an extra hour of air. If they made it to the safety curtain at the closest junction, then there's a spare tank for each crewman.'
'What about Winner?' Neptune asked.
'Five extra tanks over and above, despite the space it takes up. He insisted. So he'll be covered, and that's four extra tanks, but... but they can't share the tanks. So whoever gets the last tanks is going to live the longest, if we don't get to them fast enough.'
Zechs was calculating in his head, but even so, Neptune beat him. 'Then your countdowns are only going to be accurate if they made to the safety curtains and if they're one of the ones who get to use a second tank. Take those conditions away and we've got--'
'Based on the last data we had on each man, and counting the emergency kit they're each carrying--' The local Preventer tapped quickly on the keyboard, and the countdowns dropped a stomach-wrenching twelve hours each. The remaining total was beyond bleak.
'Two hours,' Neptune said faintly. 'Less than two hours.'
'We're making progress on clearing the fall. But we've got seismic activity still in the unstable sectors and Preventers haven't completed scans yet for more explosives. And we're dealing with a lot of dust, sirs and ladies. Those explosions pulverised a lot of silicate. We've got big magnets on the nickel-iron, but we can't run the vacuums at the same time as all the rescue activity.'
'All right.' Sally stood. 'We know the situation. The rescuers will do their part, and it's time for us to begin ours. The locals--' she nodded respectfully to their fellow Preventer at the monitors-- 'have compiled the lists of who was on site and who wasn't supposed to be. I want to start interviews and section off possible suspects. Tropic, Wind, you've been here before, so I want you in preliminary screening. Cobra, Mamba, Spider, you're interrogation. Orange and Neptune, liaise with the locals and with HQ and funnel information where it needs to be. Let's go, people.'
They missed the two hour mark.
Zechs watched it go on his wristwatch. He tried not to think too much about it when he took a deep breath, knowing there were eighteen miners who might be out of air now.
'You can go,' he told the woman sitting across from him. She gathered her helmet as she stood, ducking back out of their tent with a small cloud of dust to greet her. Without the vacuums running, dust was starting to clog the docks. Beside him, Tropic coughed into his elbow, and drank deeply from a bottle of water. 'How many are left?' Zechs asked his partner.
Tropic tilted his ePad toward the light. 'Another couple dozen. All of them licensed dock workers who checked in on schedule.'
'We're wasting too much time on this.' Zechs went to the tent flap to look out. The reek of desperation in the crowd outside was getting stronger-- they all knew they'd missed the countdown. 'We're looking for hay in a haystack. We're not going to find anything that way.'
'So what do you suggest?' Tropic joined him, cracking his knuckles in a way that set Zechs' teeth on edge. 'We're doing our jobs, Wind.'
'But we can do them better.' He had the itch of a tiny idea starting in the back of his mind. 'Hay in a haystack,' he repeated himself. 'That's right. We're looking for what we expect to be there. Not what we don't expect to be there. Confirming that the people who clocked in are actually here.'
'And so far we have. There's no-one missing except the miners and Quatre Winner.'
'And why is that?' Zechs abandoned the flap and returned to their worktable. He glared at the downloaded reams of employee lists. 'Why today? What's special about today?'
'Special? Nothing. There's nothing out of the ordinary. That mine's been open for years and there were no--' Tropic came to his side. 'Unless you mean Winner. But the foreman said he's been here every day.'
'Not every day,' Zechs corrected. 'The foreman said almost. Almost every day. What if this attack is aimed at him? Timed for his presence here?'
'That's a leap from sabotage!'
'Is it? Not if sabotage was originally meant to bring him personally down. Tropic, it all fits-- the escalation of events, the threats, Maxwell's drugging--'
'You're not still thinking it's related?' Tropic's scepticism hit Zechs' momentum like a wheel spike. 'This is a whole other game from those things. No-one died in those other instances.'
True. He doubted it, then. Then firmed his resolve. 'Winner must be the target. What other motivation is there?'
'Or Winner the business. Winner Enterprises.' Tropic grabbed for his pad. 'What if it's aimed at the business, or at mining or--'
'Something for which Quatre Winner is the symbol.'
'So what we should be screening for is someone with a personal grudge.' Tropic dropped the pad back to the table and followed it with both fists. 'And that list could be a kilometre long.'
That was a new voice. Zechs turned, an admonition on his lips, but it wasn't a fellow Preventer or a civilian interrupting them. Trowa Barton.
Still wearing a dust-grimed environmental suit, though he carried the helmet under his arm. Sweat soaked his short hair, streaked his thin face.
'Sit down,' Zechs invited him, gesturing to a chair. 'You should hydrate while you rest.'
'Wind,' Tropic murmured. Zechs hushed him.
Barton took the water, but not the chair. His eyes roamed restlessly back to the tent flap as he downed swallow after swallow. Zechs tapped the pad against his palm, trying not to rush him. The young man was obviously exhausted; every inch of his rigid posture proclaimed a desperate lack of hope.
When the level in the water bottle neared the bottom, Zechs slid the pad across the table. 'Whoever did this had a stronger motivation than revenge on an employer. Endangering this many people is the act of someone with an agenda.'
'Political,' Barton rasped. He picked up the pad, but Zechs could see the lack of focus in his eyes, the way they skipped about. 'He's got enemies. People-- he's not popular on L4. The war.'
'Help us compile a list,' Zechs said. 'We need this. You're closest to him, and you'll be able to inform us better than anyone else.'
The pad dipped to the table. Barton's face was rigid, his muscles jumping as he clenched his jaw. 'I have to go back in there. He's--'
'There are dozens of trained rescuers at work,' Tropic interrupted him coolly. 'You can help him better by helping us here.'
Zechs set his hand on Barton's shoulder. 'Sit down,' he said gently. 'I'll get you another water. We won't take a minute longer than we have to, and you can get back to the mine as quickly as possible.'
Barton stared at him, seeing and not seeing him. Zechs offered no further encouragement, knowing he would be obeyed. But he did offer what Barton really needed-- the support of a firm hand on his shoulder, the reassurance that he was doing all he could. When Barton finally nodded, it was little more than a quiver of long eyelashes, but he sat.
'Maybe some coffee and a sandwich,' Zechs said. 'While we have you here. You'll need the strength when you go back out. I'll get it for you.'
Tropic was watching him thoughtfully. Zechs nodded to him. 'Get him started,' he added privately. 'I'll let the Director know and find that food.'
'Mm,' Tropic replied, and watched him leave, too.
Barton's list of potential saboteurs was either paranoid or depressing. Either way, 'extensive' didn't quite describe it.
Sally read only the first two pages before she sighed. 'Running this down could take us all the new year.'
'I had him mark the ones he personally considered an immediate danger. It doesn't shorten the list all that much, but it gives us a sense of priority.' Zechs cracked his neck, and then his back, twisting to and fro to alleviate the pressure of aching muscles. He had a headache that wasn't going away, and tried to keep the grump out of his voice.
'Ma'am.' Neptune appeared at the truck's open door, trailing one of the local Preventers. 'They'd made it past the first blocked junction. They didn't find any of the miners-- the safety curtain there was compromised in the explosion. The foreman thinks they would have tried to make it to the next curtain a half-kilometre in.'
Zechs glanced quickly at the monitors. They were two hours past that original countdown. 'If they made it to the next curtain, they'd have those extra air tanks.'
'That's what we're hoping.'
'Neptune.' Sally gestured her in, and Zechs reached to give her a hand up. Neptune's grip was strong as she pushed up over the lip of the truck, and she turned to help Agent Mèo after her. Sally showed her Barton's list. 'Go over this with the locals and see if they can identify anyone who's been on their radar before. Let's get this narrowed down so we can start interviews.'
'Director.' Mèo peered over Neptune's shoulder to get a view of the list. 'I've been posted here for three years. Right here on this front page I can tell you one likely suspect.' At Sally's nod, he took the paper and laid it out by the computers, calling up a new window with net search of Preventers' databanks. 'We've got an open investigation of their activities. They're an intra-colonial group who front a lot of environmental protests. They don't like mining, and they don't like Winner Enterprises.'
'They're violent?' Zechs asked quickly, stooping to look as the databank raised a series of ID photos.
'They talk bigger than they act, but they've been escalating the past few years. They claimed credit for a bomb at a fuel depot-- no injuries then. We intercepted digital traffic between the kid who says he's the leader and some of the known associates--' He tapped in a passcode, and opened a file of emails. 'He's a college kid, your hot-house radical leftist. Personally, I always thought he was just a self-important jerk. But he attracts some real nutjobs. These emails went out a three months ago.'
'We will not compromise with traditional conservationist incrementalism,' Neptune read aloud for them. 'We are fed up with capitalist pigs who throw up road-block after road-block to true preservation of the natural universe.' Neptune shrugged. 'Yadda yadda. Hot-house is right. That's pretty generic.'
'But look at the second paragraph here. This is where he starts walking the edge. He's using code words for violent action. If we really want to stop the capitalist pigs, we have to hit them where they'll feel it most-- take out their business interests. And here-- Sometimes the only way to save the hen-house is to burn the fox out of the hole.'
'Any direct mention of the mines?' Sally asked.
'Not from him and not from any of the dozen or so we regularly watch. But there's about fifteen hundred subscribed to FreeSpace's web feed.'
'Get on the line with a judge who will give us a warrant for the subscription list, and then we'll match names from Barton's list and see if we get any hits. And let's keep on the political angle too-- if this is a Gundam Pilot thing, that's a boatload of motivation, too.'
'Rescue attempts continue here at L4's asteroid mining docks,' the reporter narrated. 'According to an inside source who asks to remain anonymous due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, the miners may have been without air for nine hours. Emergency tanks with eight hours of air were waiting behind safety curtains, but even if the miners were able to reach the tanks, this last precious resource would have been exhausted fifty minutes ago.'
'Who leaked that?' Zechs muttered, but couldn't find the energy to rise. Instead he turned off the sound and closed his eyes on the monitor. His headache had become a full-blown migraine, aggravated by the bone-deep thrum of the vacuums they had finally turned on. It was easier to breathe on the docks now, but the racket threatened to drown out all coherent thought.
'Wind.' It was Neptune; and the cup she carried was steaming hot coffee. Zechs took it with a grateful grunt, burying his nose in it immediately. Warmth spread down his chest, and he heaved a deep breath.
She eased down in the chair next to his, her long legs covered in mud and her usually groomed nails now chipped. 'This is going to have a bad ending, isn't it,' she said softly.
Zechs couldn't answer that. He sipped his coffee again, but it didn't help as much this time. 'You should get some rest,' he said at last. 'Grab a few hours.'
'I'm all right.' She let her dark hair down from its functional bun, combing her fingers through its weight. 'Barton's still out there. I've never seen anyone drive themselves like that. I don't think he really believes Winner's alive, but he won't stop.'
'There's still the extra five tanks.'
'You think he'd take one away from a miner? A man he'd feel responsible for?'
No. No, he didn't. It was insightful of Neptune to say that.
After a moment of quiet, she spoke again. 'I saw you step outside to call him.'
Zechs touched the phone in his coat pocket. 'Call who?'
'I didn't pass confidential information.'
'No, I know you wouldn't.' She twisted her hair back and closed her eyes. 'I can understand wanting to talk to someone who can offer comfort.'
It registered, then. She knew about Duo. 'Office gossip,' he guessed stiffly. 'I suppose everyone knows.'
'Cobra was watching their apartment Christmas Eve. You spent the night there. And I could tell that time I met him that Maxwell liked you. He didn't look away from you once.'
His face heated. 'I've been very careful. There's no conflict of interest.'
'If you were a dog, your ruff would be up. It's okay. There's no gossip, not like that. It was just sort of a surprise.'
Zechs rubbed his eyes, and sighed. 'He didn't answer, at any rate. He's probably at work.'
'He seems nice. A nice young guy.' She quirked an eyebrow at him. 'Actually, I'm a little relieved. All this time I thought I'd just lost my mojo.'
His laugh had a little more bark than amusement, but, in the end, he took it as the apology it was. 'I suppose I should have just said something.'
'It wasn't all wasted energy. You're a nice young man yourself.' She smiled at him. 'So. Friends and colleagues?'
'Friends and colleagues.' He pressed her hand.
'Agents.' It was Mèo. 'You'll both want to hear this.'
'Progress?' Neptune beat him to his feet, but they were right on each other exiting the truck.
Mèo was hurrying them toward their interview tent. 'Of a kind. The Winners have come forward.'
'Wait, you said the Winners?' Zechs demanded. 'His own family are claiming responsibility?'
'Sort of.' Mèo held the flap for them. 'Go on, Agents.'
Zechs just had time to twitch his uniform straight. People were coming to their feet at his entrance, and it was quite the crowd inside-- dominated by familiar blond heads. The Winner family resemblance was almost uncanny.
'Agents Wind and Neptune,' Sally introduced them briefly, and ignored them thereafter. 'You were saying, Ms Winner.'
The only blonde who was seated at the table seemed to be the one addressed. 'My sister is-- disturbed,' she said haltingly. She crushed the cuffs of her ombre coat in white-knuckled fist. 'Honestly, I never imagined she was capable of this. I thought it was youth, and anger, that it would-- she would grow up. Out of it.'
'Her sister?' Zechs murmured to Tropic.
'Mavise Winner,' Tropic answered under his breath. 'The family think she's the one who set the bombs.'
'Shh.' Neptune gave him an elbow to the ribs.
Sally touched the table between her and Ms Winner. 'Ms Winner, let me ask this. Where is your sister now?'
A tall man standing behind the seated woman stepped forward. Another blond, though his facial features weren't quite so sharply Winner. 'We've been calling Mavise since we first got word of what happened here. It went to voicemail every time. Two hours ago I had the records pulled from the phone company.' He handed Sally a manilla folder. 'As the family's lawyer I am happy to provide any and everything you need from us.'
Sally pursed her lips. She opened the folder. 'Here? Her phone is here?'
'According to the GPS coordinates the last time it was on. And if you'll note, the last time it was on was the same time as the explosion here.'
'Why?' Zechs asked bluntly. Many sets of light eyes turned to him, all of them tight, wary. 'Why would your sister do this?'
'We've provided her email log as well,' Ms Winner said, no inflection in her voice, her hands clenched tight.
Sally was already reading. 'She's a member of FreeSpace.'
'Not just a member.' Another of the blondes, a young woman in her thirties, who wore pained frown lines to each side of her mouth. 'It started her freshman year at school. She began participating in protests. She chained herself to a Grabbie, once. Gave interviews in which she said-- truly awful things about Quatre.'
'Don't put a shine on it, Iraia,' the man beside her said flatly. 'She called him a fascist murdering pig. She said his work as a Gundam Pilot shamed us all-- that he's a baby killer and a traitor. And now this eco-terrorist crap. She says he's ripping apart Space for freeloading colonists. As if Winner Enterprises didn't create jobs, feed people. We do good work and Quatre's done his part to make it better.'
Sally stood. 'Thank you for this information. Agent Mèo, let's get a scanner from Local. I want to try and find this phone. Ms Winner, Mr and Mrs Martinez, Mr Winner. All of you. Thank you for bringing us this information. We'll do everything we can to find both Quatre and Mavise.'
Zechs stepped aside for the family was they filed out of the tent. He looked down at his watch and exhaled. Time.
When the Winners had gone the Preventers took turns reading the emails, passing page by page. It was an ugly history in print. Zechs set down the final page with an unsettled stomach. 'She definitely had motive. She hates her brother.'
'And this FreeSpace group egged her on instead of holding her back.' Neptune went back to the earliest emails, scanning them line by line. 'All right, she all but says she's going to do something to the mines. But where does a college girl get bombs?'
'You can get step-by-step instructions from the internet,' Tropic shrugged.
'But the materials?'
'Science labs,' Sally said tiredly. 'Chemicals. And you can order half of what you need from the same place you get the building plans.'
'What I want to know is how she got in here.' Mamba fanned himself with a handful of pages, dark eyes thoughtful. 'According to the foreman, there's no-one here who doesn't have clearance and barcode check-in.'
'I don't think access to the mines would be a problem.' Zechs searched for the roster of people who'd been admitted to the site the morning of the explosions, already knowing her name wasn't on it. 'She could have talked her way on-site. You've heard how people talk about the Winners on this colony. Would an employee really say “no” to a Winner, even if it goes against protocol?'
Mèo was back with a brisk flip of the tent flap, startling all of them. 'Didn't have to go back to Local,' he said excitedly. 'The dock master had a scanner in his office, because the miners all use phones on wi-fi. I just have to calibrate it.'
'Will it find Mavise Winner's phone even if it's turned off?'
'Not on Earth. But in the Colonies, every mobile phone is required to emit a homing signal whether it's on or off. Even a broken phone can emit if the card's not damaged.' Mèo bent over the desk, fiddling with the scanner. 'We should have thought of this hours ago. If the miners kept their phones on them--'
'We might have some idea where they are?' Sally finished. They went into hushed silence.
Mèo bit his lip. 'I don't want to raise hopes too much here. This scanner isn't the most sensitive.'
'But it would give you general position? Back half of the asteroid, front half?'
'Maybe a little better than that. Maybe enough that someone really familiar with the mines might be able to determine tunnels.'
'Good enough for me.' Sally gestured Cobra to her feet. 'Get the foreman back here. He's the best one to tell us, and he'll be discreet.'
Mèo flipped a final switch. 'Ready. Read me off the girl's phone number.'
Neptune had the top sheet. 'Eight-six-three-three-nine-six-eight-six-two-two.'
Mèo typed. Zechs found himself holding his breath. He knew by the flicker of Mèo's sudden grin just before the agent said, 'I have a signal. Here at the docks.'
'So she's here.' Sally paced, tapping her fingers on her elbows. 'Can you tell where specifically? If she stayed to watch the carnage--'
'The mine.' Mèo looked up. 'According to this, she's in the mine itself.'
'Why would she be-- is she pretending to be a rescuer? Wouldn't someone have noticed?' Neptune said blankly.
'Not if she got trapped by her own explosion.' Zechs met Sally's eyes. 'It happened all the time during the war. The Resistance would be caught by their own bombs.'
Sally rubbed both hands through her hair. 'All right,' she said. 'All right. We know she's here, and we know that makes it likely she really did cause the explosions, or she'd have no other reason to be here. So she's either trapped in the mines or dead, in which case it's not our problem, or she's still in the mines because she's got more explosives and she's waiting for-- what? A full commitment of resources? A chance to do bigger damage?'
'There's been hundreds of people swarming the mine since morning,' Mamba protested. 'Why wait?'
'There may be something to that,' Zechs disagreed. 'The second explosion could have been timed to catch the rescue team as it did. And blocked the entrance to the mine. We're only just now breaking through the debris. If she's got a third or fourth bomb on her, she could be holding on to it.'
'And there's nothing we can do about that in any case except quietly alert the rescuers that we believe it's possible.' Sally stilled, arms tight to her chest, eyes narrow as she decided the next steps. 'All right. I want Preventers with every rescue team. We'll go in shifts and you're authorised for a kill shot, but be damned sure before you fire. Neptune, get me Local. I want everyone fully debriefed. And someone find out how much time before those teams will be able to get back into the mine. Better we know before Mavise Winner does.'
'Ma'am,' Neptune answered with hard satisfaction, and left the tent.
He was jolted out of a dead sleep by his phone. He dropped it on first fumble and rolled off the cot to his knees to search the floor for it. There--
'Duo?' he croaked. 'What is it?'
'Zechs! Zechs, please, you have to come home!'
'Duo, I can't, I-- what time--'
'They have Heero!'
He fell back onto the concrete and rested his head against the cot. 'What do you mean, they have Heero? Who has Heero?'
The pitch of Duo's agitation rose. 'They came to the apartment in the middle of the night and they took him to the Asylum Centre. They said they got an anonymous tip that he's here illegally and they're deporting him. They're fucking deporting him-- I don't know what to do, they won't let me see him, I just-- I can't-- You have to come home, you have to help me. Please, I don't know what else to do, Zechs, I don't fucking know what else to do...'
The sound of Duo's laboured breathing in his ear was the only backdrop to thoughts that refused to connect. All he could think to say was-- 'I can't possibly leave here, Duo. There's no way.'
'Fine.' Explosive and angry. Then another breath that trembled, and Duo repeated it, softly, barely any voice to it. 'Fine. Yeah. I understand. I have to go.'
'No. Just-- go do your work. Find Quatre. That's important too.'
'Duo, I would come if I could. I'll make some calls, try to find out--'
'Forget it. I'll figure it out.'
'Will you wait--' He got no further than that. Duo hung up on him.
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