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Kelvin + Part 8
They had opened a room in crew
quarters to rob the cots and proper bedding, and for access to the en-suite.
It was extremely basic, little more than a spout from the ceiling aimed
over a drain in the bare metal cubicle, with a bucket-like toilet beside
it. The little bath on the ship had been more accommodating-- and he had
better memories of it.
It seemed years ago, ages ago, now, that day when they'd made love in
the shower on the ship. A comparatively innocent time. The worry, the
fear, hadn't become so real, then, and their relationship-- could still
at least be called a cautious friendship, inside their sexual attraction.
So much had happened since then.
The force of his own regrets was overwhelming. Regret that he'd waited
so long to do anything about Duo's illness. Regret that one of the last
coherent exchanges they'd had was his crime and Duo's hatred. Of course
his hatred. His grief. The oldest, the worst wound, the reason they'd
been on opposing sides of the war. He hadn't had the chance to make Duo
see that it also made them the same. They were both witness to the destruction
of their childhoods, their homes, their loved ones. They'd both found
vengeance in war, in inflicting death and suffering on the same soldiers
who had taken so much from them. And if Zechs hadn't been a part of Duo's
pain, they could have shared it.
A hand reached around him for the knob. The water warmed considerably,
spewing in uncertain spurts. Zechs turned to see who had interrupted him,
hoping it was Barton and not Sally--
"Hey," Duo said.
"You're better?" He found himself dry-mouthed, dizzy. He cupped the back
of Duo's neck, gripped the silky braid. "I thought..."
"That I never would be again?" Duo grinned. "You're kind of pessimistic."
Some part of him knew instantly what was wrong. Or perhaps it only seemed
that way, after. Duo could not have been there. Duo wasn't there. But
it had every texture, every taste of something real. When Duo touched
him it felt real.
"Don't worry about me," Duo said. He turned the water warmer still, until
it began to sting their skin. "Barton'll take care of me good. Are you
in the mood for sushi?"
"Sushi? I don't understand." He slapped a hand to the wall. The metal
was damp and heating up from the steam. He stared hard at the pattern
of shadow on its grey surface, willing himself to wake up. To stop. "You're
going back to Barton, aren't you?" he asked muzzily.
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Duo was gone. He was alone.
Suddenly he was freezing. He wrenched the knob to the far left, as hot
as it would go, but then there was steam all around him, steam that smelled
like gunsmoke. Gunsmoke. Burned metal and scorched concrete, like after
a ground battle. It--
His neck. He fumbled for the back of his neck. That was where Duo's was,
the spore blister. Did he have one? Was he going to--
It took only moments after that for the headache to strike. It came on
as swiftly as the hallucination, as the chills, stabbing at his eyes and
temples. He leaned on the wall for support, for the trace of coolness
that vanished swiftly under his cheek. He could barely breathe around
it, barely see. Barely stand. He sank into a crouch when he became afraid
he couldn't stand under the assault.
"Merquise. Come on. Come out."
Barton. He managed a dry-mouthed swallow. "Not a good time," he croaked.
The door opened, cracking into his shins. "Merquise." The toe of a sneaker
landed in a puddle with a dull splat. Then, "You're fucked up. Come on.
You can't sit there all night." He wrapped a hand around Zechs' arm and
pulled. "Don't fight me, damn it. I'm not in the mood for a combative
He was on his feet, unwillingly. Reeling. Barton was holding him up, and
everywhere he was gripping blazed with agony, but none of that even approached
the pain in his skull.
"Come on. Describe the symptoms."
"I need a toilet." He wasn't sure he actually managed to say it aloud.
But then he was being forcibly bent over at the waist, and then he was
choking on acidic bile. It seemed to go on forever, until finally he could
breathe again. Water splashed his face, tilted past his lips. He spat
it out again.
"On my fucking shoe. Violent nausea. Obviously. Headache too?"
"Let go of me," he managed.
"And watch you fall flat on your ass? Funny as that would be, no." Barton
wrapped him in an unbearably scratchy towel. "When did this start?"
"Duo. Where is he."
"Sleeping. Where you should probably be. Come on."
"He was here. Five minutes ago. He was-- better."
The pause was long enough for him to notice past the flurry of his pain.
"He hasn't moved in twelve hours, Merquise." They were walking. Stumbling.
He landed on something soft-- a chair. The lights-- Barton turned off
the lights. The relief was enough to bring tears to his eyes. "This is
faster than we expected. Maybe... we don't have time to wait on our safe
options right now. Damn it. I don't know."
The prick of a needle in his bicep was agony, injecting fire into his
veins. No, not fire-- ice. It spread like a flood through his arm and
into his chest, and up into his head-- cooling--
He could see Barton, now. Fuzzy around the edges, but real, and visible.
The pain subsided. It wasn't gone, but he could function. Zechs sucked
in a deep breath.
"What did you give me?" He'd been grinding his teeth. His jaws ached as
he stretched them. He was still cold. And nude. His clothes were in the
bags sitting by the wall, but he couldn't face standing for them yet.
"I'm an actual doctor, you know. With credentials and everything. What
do you care what I gave you?" Barton rose from his crouch at Zechs' side.
"You missed the discussion while you were in the bath. Noventa's boarding
later. He wants to talk to you personally." He paused at the door. "If
I were you, I'd stay away from reminding him how you assassinated his
"Died before he finished paying. I'd lay bets Noventa sees you as the
next best target." Barton stood staring down at him. "Was this really
the first fit like this, or did you lie to us earlier? It's important
"The first." He couldn't remember when Duo's had been. Couldn't piece
together the timeline. "He had one. Not sure how many, he
"That was probably because of the antibiotics. You shouldn't have any
more, either, if the 'phages do their work."
If. Zechs heard that, and wondered at his lack of surprise. He supposed
he'd never really believed they were the answer. At least it wasn't a
When he looked up, Barton had gone, and he was alone.
He retreated to his bed to
ride out the rest of the headache, but he couldn't sleep long. He occupied
himself briefly with performing a nurse's function for Duo, washing him
with a bowl of warm water and a flannel, but he'd already done the same
thing the evening before and it only underlined, depressingly, Duo's fragility.
His limbs were so light, his skin bruising under the least pressure.
Sally had brought him the files Noventa had provided them. He was slogging
through them, document by document. They were unbelievably thorough. There
was no way of knowing if such extensive paperwork was kept on all agents,
but he had to doubt it. Still, it left him with the highly uncomfortable
realisation that he'd been watched, and not by the enemy, but by his own
colleagues and possibly even people he'd counted as friends.
The dossiers had all been classified to the highest security level, past
the point where he could have accessed them even if he'd known to look.
His personnel file was hardly material that deserved lock and key, but
it was top of the pile. There was nothing in it beyond a basic employment
history, a list of missions he had completed, cases to which he'd been
party. Standard stuff. It was the rest of the dossier that contained practically
the rest of his life. Some of it still bore stamps of origin from OZ and
even Alliance. They had tracked him from birth to the fall of his parents'
kingdom, through his career in Specials, his defection to White Fang.
They had his real identity. Copies, even originals, of the titles that
made him a prince and a landowner, the wills left by his parents and Treize
that he had never sought to execute. There were minute breakdowns of his
psychological profile by doctors he'd never sat with; few of them were
positive, but all of them were annotated extensively in a different hand
than had written the evaluations, and that suggested internal review.
He had certainly never been notified he was under review. Next were medical
files from every visit he'd ever made to a doctor in the entire course
of his thirty years. The results of his final pre-boarding physical--in
the original showing red-lettered warnings of parasitic infection, and
a mock-up that lied about everything. The switch of the two documents
approved, of course, by none other than Preventers Command and Lady Une.
Zechs could easily understand the case for choosing himself as a test
target. The dossier was proof that his political ambitions, or at least
the ambitions that others had held for him, had been of long-standing
concern to every established government of his lifetime. Even Sally had
brought it up yesterday--there had been talk for years now of changes
that needed to be made, realities that needed to be reassessed, and Une
had been at the top of that list. Even people who supported her administration
had been murmuring, quietly, that it was time for her to step down and
let someone new at the helm. Zechs had been a frequent candidate for her
replacement. But only in watercooler talk, only in rumour. He had hardly
thought of it, himself. He had had command, once, and it was his intention
to never seek it again. But he was not naïve. He hadn't suppressed
those rumours, either. Had never gone to Une to privately assure her she
was safe from him. It might not have made a difference. It might just
have accelerated her paranoia. He was too cynical of the corruption that
came with power to feel much moral disappointment with the woman who had
been his friend and commander, but he did feel, and understand, Duo's
deep sense of personal betrayal.
Duo had plenty of reason. His file was even more detailed than Zechs'.
Zechs had never known the extent to which Duo, even more than the other
Gundam pilots who worked within or ancillary to Preventers, had been active
in shadow-missions. They hadn't worked as a five-man unit since 198, but
Duo was listed as a lone agent in fully three quarters of his cases. He
was employed primarily as a pilot and a sharp shooter. He'd done nine
target eliminations--assassinations, in plain speak, and well beyond the
number Preventers had established as the firm limit any one agent should
have to commit. There were transcripts of his debriefings, grimmer with
time, angrier. Duo raised questions, and his frustration at the lack of
answers was palpable, but so was his ongoing attempt to accept the situation
because he was told to.
They had his interviews for officership, the recommendations he'd mentioned.
His reviews were always glowing. He'd never had a single demerit, a single
complaint, and according to all this extensive evidence in his dossier
he'd never been pulled into office politics, either. There didn't seem
to be a reason that he, like Zechs, had been made a victim. Zechs read
everything end to end, went back and did it again, and could only find
a single document that seemed to relate; the same switched results of
that final physical they'd taken the week before boarding. But Duo had
been flown in specially from the colonies, Duo alone had been offered
this out of dozens of possible, perhaps more readily obvious, agents,
agitators, worrisome elements. So why?
He wanted answers. He wanted reasons. To have so much information between
his two hands and to have none of it amount to why--
Did nothing but worsen his headache.
Eyestrain had produced a tightness in his temples that didn't help the
low rumbling of nausea he still felt. Barton's shot had taken a considerable
edge off the pain, but it was still there. Duo had slept through his own
headaches, after the hallucinations. He remembered how worried he had
been. And what a fool. Both of them. So content to wait, so convinced
there was nothing to be done until help came to them.
Sally interrupted his thoughts gently, touching him on the ankle to announce
her presence. "How's the head?" she asked.
"In recovery." He couldn't summon a smile to match hers. "I know I was
supposed to sleep."
"In all my years as a doctor, I've seen about sixty percent of my medical
advice go ignored, purposefully or otherwise." She placed the file she
held over the ones in his lap. "These are the results from our tests.
I thought you'd like me to go over them with you, before Noventa comes.
He'll want to see them too."
"Thank you." Paranoia wanted to refuse Noventa access to such--personal
information, useless though that was in the face of all that he'd just
been reading. There was no room even for the possibility that Noventa
hadn't already memorised everything in their dossiers. Plenty of possibility
there were dozens of copies in unknown hands. Or that what he held was
censored already, carefully selected pieces to paint a picture.
He reined himself in with effort. Sally sat when he made room for her,
her deft fingers moving from line to chart on the printouts.
"I feel confident calling this encephalopathy," she said. "The blood tests
and spinal fluids are, I think, pretty conclusive. We could go further
with some imaging tests, but the equipment here is old and it's not meant
for serious diagnostics."
"Encephalopathy." He tried not to notice that he stumbled on the syllables.
It was an unfamiliar word--there didn't have to be any reason other than
that. He kept his gaze on the charts with their mysterious contents. "You
said that before. What is it?"
"It means a disease that alters brain function. Caused by the spore infection,
of course. You were otherwise healthy before you were exposed."
"So it's in the brain." He was an educated man. A man of science, not
in the sense of being specially trained, but in the sense that he was
neither religious nor superstitious. But it struck an uneasy chord in
him, that realisation. It was somehow more insidious, more malevolent,
to think of these--spores, these parasites, infecting not just his body
but the seat of his very humanity. It chilled him to the core. It made
him want to reach for Duo's hand. It made him want to break something
Sally squeezed his knee. "I know," she said quietly.
He swallowed with some difficulty. "There's something I don't understand.
There's nothing in his files that shows Duo tested the same weapon I did."
"I don't think he did. Noventa claims he didn't ever find evidence of
"We talked about it. He would have told me if he remembered."
"He may not have. I know you didn't list memory loss as a symptom, but
just because you didn't notice it doesn't mean it wasn't happening. You
didn't know each other well enough to conduct a thorough examination."
So the Duo he'd known had been slipping away before they'd ever boarded.
"What else did I miss?"
Her lips were chapped, her slim oval face devoid of any make-up, her honey
hair carelessly and efficiently braided back from her face. The wrinkled
blue of her scrubs made faint cotton rustles when she shifted. But she
"Progressive loss of memory and cognitive ability. Personality changes,
which both of you saw and recorded. Difficulty concentrating, other neurological
symptoms like that--the dementia and the seizures. Losing the ability
to speak. Progressive loss of consciousness. Muscle atrophy. Zechs, I
will say it again. This was inevitable and it wasn't anything you could
have fixed. You got him here. You got yourself here. We will treat you.
We will do everything we know how to do."
And he would have to be content with that, wouldn't he? Any power he'd
had over this situation, over their very lives, had been eliminated long
before he'd known to even look for it. The guilt did no-one any good,
least of all Duo, but it was as inevitable as his helplessness.
"All these changes," he said. "Treatment will fix it all? Reverse it all?"
He knew the answer in the minute hesitation that followed. "Treating the
infection will halt the progression," she explained, muted at his visible
disappointment. "It could--should--improve some of the symptoms. Some
of the damage may be permanent. It's still better than the alternative."
Barton appeared at the privacy curtain, his hair wet and gleaming from
a shower of his own. "Noventa's at the airlock," he said briefly, and
left them again.
Sally stood. "Ready or not?"
Ready. Zechs was cautious enough to test himself upright, letting his
feet find solid purchase on the ground, but then he tossed back his sheet
and stood to his full height.
"I didn't mean for you to get up. You should really try to stay low until
the headache is gone."
"Hand me my jacket, please."
She reached for it automatically, pausing when she saw what it was. "Your
uniform? You don't think this might be a bad time to push his buttons?"
"I won't meet him lying down," Zechs told her flatly. He had dressed not
in the loose cotton gown and trousers he'd worn since boarding Zebra Tango,
but in his Preventers uniform, the starched lines still crisp on release
from the vacuum bag. The residue of his sudden headache, an uneasy dribble
of nausea in his gut, an aura of sensitivity to even the dim light and
noise of the infirmary, lingered like a nasty virus. It was appropriate.
But he was determined to meet the man as an equal, not a patient. "He
may think he's disbanded the Preventers," he said, "but I received no
such notice, and I don't recognise his authority."
She stared at him, obviously wondering, though thankfully not verbalising,
whether his truculence was natural or symptomatic. But she didn't stop
him, and so he finished dressing himself, twitching every seam straight
and squaring the knot of his tie beneath his chin. He hadn't worn this
uniform in five months, and he might never wear it again, Noventa or no
Noventa, but he would wear it impeccably. There were some codes that were
crystal clear, and honour would not be compromised just because he didn't
He was just tying back his loose hair when booted footsteps on the metal
tile announced the arrival of their conquering overlord. Barton pulled
back the curtain from the corridor, and Noventa entered before him, ducking
his head at the sight of the two Preventers awaiting him. Zechs did not
return the courtesy; he stood rigid as a post, his hands clasped tight
behind his back, his head level. There were no greetings, no formalities.
There was silence, lingering as if it were too heavy to be moved, queasy
In person, Noventa looked even more like his martyred uncle. His beard
was trimmed and neat, but still dark with youth. He had the same hawk-like
nose and eyes with their heavy brows, a lean and handsome man who looked
like the scion of tradition and genteel breeding. Looking at him, it occurred
to Zechs, not without an attendant sense of irony, that though they looked
nothing alike, they were hardly very different men.
Noventa was the one who broke the icy stand-off. "Agent Merquise," he
said flatly. "I was explaining to Doctor Barton that I have a medical
officer in my company who is very interested in your progress. If you
have a detailed summary, I will convey it to her."
"Her who?" Sally asked.
Barton and Sally both had come to stand by Duo's bed, where Zechs himself
had taken stance. They made a tight group of compatriots, clustered around
the softly glowing screens with their incomprehensible data, and their
fallen comrade, hidden behind their backs. Unconsciously or otherwise,
they presented Noventa a united front. Zechs was not unaware of it, but
knew it likely looked like the childish spite it was. Noventa and his
armed fleet outside held all the power here, and it didn't need to be
repeated. To his credit, if Zechs could call it that, Noventa at least
made no move to counter them, not even in his posture or his proximity.
He maintained a strict distance from them, an emissary and nothing more.
"Doctor Lena Matwari," he informed them. "She is a specialist in epidemiology."
And, apparently, suspect in her political leanings. Barton complained
immediately, and Sally, too, muttered out her scepticism. "She's a tenured
think-tanker," she explained to Zechs in an aside that was not quite quiet
enough to miss its mark in the man watching their every shift. "She made
a name on television giving analyses she wasn't qualified to deliver.
Three different virus scares out of that woman."
"You have to be kidding," Barton overrode them. "You expect her to do
what, exactly? Come up with the cure that we can't? She has no cred, and
even if she did I still wouldn't let her within fifteen yards of Duo,
because she hates colonials and she doesn't shy from sharing. She didn't
even board with you to see for herself. Why risk getting spored on by
a Spacer when you can make judgments from on high without ever seeing
Even from Barton, that vitriol surprised him. So did the heat furiously
suppressed in Barton's flat stare. It was the first thing that warmed
him to the young man.
"You can think of no reason to have your finds verified by an outside
authority?" Noventa rebuked him.
"Sure. Bring one and we'll get started."
"Agent, your ire is understandable, but it will not help matters."
"Trowa," Sally said, at the same time. "Please."
Zechs was abruptly exhausted. It was mental, emotional. The sniping wasn't
going to improve anything.
Trowa broke in again, a little too sharply, but sharply on point. "It
would be a shitty biological weapon. It took seven months to progress
to this point. It's curable."
Of course they'd bring a scientist who could study that, replicate it.
But the mind couldn't even find it scandalous, even as his stomach turned
Noventa evidenced no guilt, but innocence would have been ludicrous in
a man savvy enough to incite and lead a coup. "Then you've perfected the
bacteriophages?" the man asked them. "That's good news."
The two doctors glanced at each other. Sally was the one who answered.
"I believe we're close," she said. "We're nearly to the point of administering
"Nearly?" Noventa seemed surprised. Perhaps it was genuine. Zechs knew
nothing material about the man except that he was the nephew of a greater
man. A man who, not unlike the Peacecrafts, had been sacrificed to begin
a war. It surprised him how uncomfortable he found that comparison. He
had long resented Treize's manipulations, though he had loved the man
who had been a friend once, who had kept his secrets for two decades,
and arranged for him to find the vengeance he needed for his family. Noventa
might not be much different. He had spoken passionately about the war,
not against it, as Zechs had expected, but in favour of it, or at least
in favour of the results. The age of influence and money had corroded
the democratic fabric of the Earth-Sphere, he had said famously, and in
a strange turn of fate we have a military dictator to thank for bringing
that corruption to its knees. No-one who spoke that honestly had time
for artifice when all the cards were in his hand. Zechs began to feel
easier about the man. There would be time for suspicion later, at any
rate, once this ordeal was over, and he would have to focus on the coup.
On fighting. On winning.
It was nightmarish, but at least it was far away. He didn't think he could
deal with Duo and with a war at the same time.
Noventa, who possibly wasn't getting much more sleep than any of them,
called an end to the provocation, anyway. "Would it be possible to see
Agent Maxwell?" he said. There was just enough tone to create a question
at the end of it, but he was not truly asking, and, as Sally had said,
there was no reason or way to bar him.
Sally had Barton by the wrist now. She answered quietly. "Agent Maxwell
will not be able to respond to you, General."
"I understand. I won't disturb him long."
Zechs had expected it to go that way. But Barton and Sally didn't seem
to expect what he did next, which was gesture for them to leave. Sally
balked, which was nothing to the glare that promised death or worse he
got from Barton. But he was firm, and they both obeyed.
Noventa observed their leave without expression. Only when the curtain
fell again did he drop his eyes to Duo's bed. He looked, for long enough
that Zechs had to fight his own rebellious instinct. Then abruptly Noventa
made a show of turning away, to look at the monitors. "Yet you seem well
yourself," he said, with a quietness of voice that hadn't been there before.
Well that he should feel a little awe. A little shock. "I did not expect
his condition to be so poor."
"We don't know when he was infected." Zechs took a wide arc, ending out
at Duo's side where he could better watch Noventa's face. "Do you?"
"Everything I know I have provided to you." Noventa subsided into a thoughtful
silence. Then, "Whatever you did must have been particularly evil."
"Go to hell."
Noventa turned fierce eyes up to him. He said nothing.
"To suggest that either of us have personally earned what's been done
to us is heinous enough. Whatever your anger with me-- however justified--"
Zechs hesitated, old words coming back to him, Duo's words. The moral
awareness to choose. The courage not to hide behind another man's orders.
"However justified," he repeated softly, with difficulty. "But those sins
are a decade old, now, and both of us have tried to live virtuous and
honourable lives. Whatever you believe of us. If there was debt owed,
it didn't warrant this."
"No." Noventa breathed out through his nose. Haltingly, he added, "You
shouldn't worry that I have nefarious plans for him, or for yourselves.
You are victims of your own government. You will have the opportunity
to seek justice."
Zechs spoke bluntly. "You're a soldier. You understand, as we do, that
duty and sacrifice are part of the bargain we entered into when we chose
that path. I am curious why Maxwell and I were chosen as the guinea pigs.
But the reasons why won't change that we were, and you've already taken
care of the possibility of justice. You've overturned the government.
You are the government."
A grimly sly understanding was there in Noventa's face. Noventa was only
older than him by ten years, perhaps, but he seemed older even than that,
in his stodgy straight-backed rigidity. He answered, "The nature of the
soldier is in expendability. It is the responsibility of leaders, whether
elected by an educated populace or brought to the moment by fate and inborn
ability and ambition, to be worthy of lives given willingly."
"Your uncle wrote that," he guessed. "He was a fine speaker."
"He was a great man. He will have cause to be proud of his legacy, now."
"There is no war. There will be no war. I will have no victims."
"Fine intentions. But you're here, not on Earth. You're second in command,
aren't you? Third, perhaps, by the time you get back there. Fourth. Who
else is dancing around your cousin by now? Who knows what will have been
done by the time you get back."
Noventa's eyes were narrowed ever so slightly. He smoothed his beard with
a rough stroke of his thumb. "I have my personal aide searching papers
regarding this case. I do intend to uncover as much evidence as possible.
We have thousands of memoranda alone."
"And will this information be made public?"
"Crimes that go silent are repeated. What has been done to you was done
to others before. I do not intend for it to be done again. Is he aware
of his surroundings?"
They were back to Duo. Zechs dropped his gaze to Duo's face. Awake, his
head tilted as if he listened to them. But his eyes were unfocussed and
his breathing was slow and regular, the involuntary function of a body
deprived of will. "Only vaguely, I suspect." He let his palm rest against
Duo's hair. There was nothing to lose in revealing their relationship.
He did appreciate the lack of reaction-- though perhaps Noventa, who was
so eminently informed, had already known. Zechs rather hoped not. There
was enough to be legitimately paranoid about, without inviting omnipotence
in potential enemies.
He opted for the most candid of responses, then; there was nothing to
lose. "I noticed a distinct sun-downing prior to our arrival here. Po
and Barton say the-- his--our brain and body chemistry have been affected.
This seems to be the final stage, before
"Death," Noventa murmured, almost as if to himself, but Zechs heard him.
He tried to ease the stiffness from his spine. It was a fact, and he had
faced it as one, before a stranger said it so baldly. Duo's head tilted
toward the source of conversation, and Zechs shifted to allow him to see.
He wrapped his arm about Duo's thin shoulders to support him in his sagging
posture. "And after death, the spread of infection to others," Noventa
continued. He looked at Duo with curiosity, but with impartiality, too.
He could afford it.
"I imagine I'll soon find myself in similar straits."
"That must be terrifying."
"It's not a pleasant prospect." Duo was sensible to touch, still. He turned
his head into Zechs' shoulder. Zechs stroked his neck gently. Unwanted,
his fingers sought for that blister in the back of his skull. The back
of his own itched. "He doesn't deserve this."
The reaction he wondered for finally came. "I know so little about him,"
Noventa said, with discernible emotion, with a real expression at last,
meeting his look, meeting his candor. "His name is never much out of the
news. The face of Preventers. The face of the Gundam Pilots. It's a well-known
face, even these days. We've uncovered a great amount of encrypted information
in his file. And yours."
No surprise. Not now. "I'm sure enough to build a case that our fate was
approved by a military court," Zechs guessed. "For whatever supposed misdeeds."
"You did have allies who argued for you. One of whom alerted us, in time
to use your case against the government."
"That's how you came here so quickly."
"We came because we were asked."
That was cryptic. Zechs would have pursued it, but Duo sighed, and he
forgot, in his haste to pet him reassuringly, to soothe whatever unknown
"You have my word that this weapons testing ends with you and Maxwell.
Regardless of the outcome."
He nodded through the tightness in his throat. "Was it-- necessary, to
disband the Preventers?"
"You tell me. When was the last time you were sent on a mission for the
benefit of the people you supposedly protect? Did the Preventers protect
you? This young man?"
He couldn't answer that. The words were lacking, and the fortitude. "There
have always been abuses. It's the nature of any military structure."
"It is the nature because the parent has never tried to correct it."
"And you will?"
"My family have always been dedicated to the best principles of military
life. We ourselves have been victims. I have a greater desire than you
seem to think to see that stamped out."
"I knew your parents. And your uncle. I don't know you. I don't know Ianto
Cameron. I hope you do." Duo's eyes closed and stayed closed. "What do
you expect of us? Of Maxwell and I?"
"We can leave my hopes until you have succeeded in finding a cure."
He really would have liked to know what strings were attached, but it
wasn't the time. Sometimes you did have to take the out-thrust hand, knowing
the dagger would follow. "I expect you to keep the way clear for us,"
he managed. "Regardless of what path our treatment takes." That left room
for Barton's wild plans. Not the time to think of that, either. Not the
time to think about very much at all, really. They were battling inevitability.
"I'll leave you now." Noventa stepped away. Zechs let him, knowing the
others would walk him back to his ship at dock. But then Noventa paused,
and added, "We're both men of the moment, in a way. Imbued with the importance
of the times. Except that your time is waning, at last, and mine is rising."
A cruel truth, that. But still a truth.
He stroked Duo's cheek, and it was no effort at all then not to think.
He couldn't sleep. He ached,
and he itched--he didn't know if that was attributable to the ancient
sheets, or to the dregs of Barton's shot working through him. He lay with
his eyes closed for what felt like hours, trying to drift off, and constantly
finding himself instead thinking of all the things he could do nothing
to control. Finally he convinced himself to sit up and make another attempt
to dredge something from Noventa's files.
And thus discovered Barton standing over Duo's bed.
Gowned. Masked. Gloved. He had Duo on his stomach, and he was probing
at the spore blister on Duo's neck.
Some instinct in Zechs knew exactly what that meant, jumping straight
to the frightening conclusion. He swung to his feet, ignoring a momentary
wave of lightheadedness. Barton reared back in surprise, and that gave
Zechs just enough reach to shove a tray of scalpels and gauze to the floor.
They hit with a horrible clatter.
"Damn it," Barton hissed at him. "Keep it down!"
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Trowa?" It was Sally, her voice drifting in from the corridor where she
and Barton slept. "Something wrong?"
"Nothing," he called back quickly. "Dropped a tray. Go back to sleep."
"You were going to cut him," Zechs accused.
"I was considering it. Keep your voice down. She's sleeping." Barton crouched
to gather his instruments. "I don't
Know if I have the guts." His
voice went dry and papery. "We don't really know anything, do we? And
time's running out."
Duo seemed to be asleep. Zechs stroked his cheek with the back of his
finger, and his eyelashes fluttered. When he brushed the blister, it seemed
harder than the day before, and bigger. Almost the size of his thumb pad.
"Would I have something like that yet?"
Barton looked up at him from the floor. "I don't know. Maybe. It would
be small, if you did. His case is a lot more advanced."
"If I did, would the risk be lower-- examining it?"
"You have to be the fucking hero." Barton shoved the tray onto a table.
"This isn't a routine biopsy. The spores aren't just designed to kill
the host, they're designed to replicate themselves, and that means an
escape avenue. That's what that thing is. At some point it will burst,
and when it does anyone in inhaling distance will be infected. Think dirty
bombs, and blast radius. And then we've got four infections instead of
just two, and that assumes that Noventa doesn't fry us out of Space when
he finds out the entire station is a hot zone."
The sensible side of him knew he ought to listen. But the sensible side
was as weary as the rest of him, and it was hard to obey.
He aimed at a compromise. Barton wanted one, and he wanted one. It was
like taking the long route to avoid traffic--it didn't save much time,
but at least there was the satisfaction of movement.
"Just look for it," he said. "It doesn't matter if it was my idea or yours.
Just at least look."
Barton's slim gloved hands bent his head until his chin touched his chest,
and roughly pulled his hair over his shoulder. Zechs tried not to think
about other hands in his hair, not to look at the braided bracelet Duo
still wore around his bony wrist. He felt pressure at the base of his
skull, careful trail down the vertebrae of his neck, and then a long pause.
"It's there," he guessed. He felt--a numb kind of--lack of surprise.
Barton stepped back sharply. "You have one."
"Can you sample it more safely?"
"No way to know."
The sensible side of him wasn't silent yet. No way to know meant it was
just as risky with him as it was with Duo, precisely because there was
no predicting what would happen. He knew what Sally would say. Much as
he would have liked to say he knew what Duo would want, though, he didn't.
One more thing they hadn't talked about until it was too late.
"Will the risk be outweighed by the benefit?"
Barton took him by the sleeve of his shirt and dragged him out the infirmary
past Sally, asleep on her cot, and almost as far as the crew quarters
at the far end of the corridor. "We don't really know anything, Merquise,"
he said again. "I don't know if even touching that thing would kill him.
Or you. The only way we could be absolutely sure we've killed the parasite
it is to irradiate the host. And with the equipment we have here, if you
didn't die from radiation sickness, leukemia a few years down the road
would be nearly inevitable. Are you willing to make that decision? For
both of you?"
He didn't like Barton's contentious tone, and he had a retort ready on
his lips when a key word in that speech registered with him. "There's
Barton's shoulders went straight in his dismay. "Yes," he said shortly.
"Where? Why haven't you used it? What do you mean--"
"I mean this station used to be a Deep Space mining and processing plant,"
Barton snapped. "There's a hydrogen grid that's supported by a nuclear
reactor. But it hasn't been operational since before they built the damn
colonies, and even if it was--"
"It wouldn't be safe."
"We agreed to try the biophages."
"Then why haven't we begun?"
"You never took a science class in OZ? Treatment doesn't arrive on a golden
platter ready to go. We have to test it."
"If you really believed that you wouldn't be waiting until Sally was asleep
to put a knife to Duo's body." Zechs drew a deep breath. "Start the treatment.
On both of us. Or choose which."
Barton's eyes were wide. It was dark in the corridor, and his pupils were
distended to take advantage of every sliver of light. It made him look
a little mad, though. Zechs hadn't seen that look since-- Antarctica,
in another lifetime. But it had been Heero Yuy, then, sullen and fifteen
and strangely invulnerable, even as Zechs had anticipated a duel to the
death. Between equals. Between two driven, focussed, dogged warriors who
did not give up, ever.
And neither he nor Barton had been in love, then. Neither he nor Barton
nor even Yuy had been fighting for someone else's life. There had been
no fear, only anticipation.
"I'm tired of waiting," Barton said, breathed, almost inaudible. He turned
on his heel, silent but for the whisper of his cotton scrubs. "I can implant
it. Sally won't see until it's too late. Give it time to see." He reached
their turn, the curtain hanging before his head turned, not quite fully
back to Zechs, but enough to acknowledge him there. He said, "You probably
won't want to watch."
He didn't. He wanted, instinctively, to be there for Duo, through anything
that qualified as an-- operation, as he supposed this would, implanting
the biophages. Secretly. As secretly as they'd been infected.
Barton didn't wait for his answer. He was through the curtain, the squeak
of his rubber soles suddenly absent. The mission silence in enemy territory.
A rescue conducted in the dark.
Zechs was tense. His muscles were quivering with being clenched, and the
headache was on its way back. He was flying into battle, and his body
knew it. But even so, he could not honestly say that he expected victory.
It didn't feel right. The body knew all kinds of things, before the mind.
He turned, too. In the opposite direction.
There were plates on the wall for direction, level name, section number.
It wasn't much help without a map, but it wasn't the first time he'd had
to navigate without a key. Harder, admittedly, without stars or trees
or any landmarks to differentiate one sharp corner from the next, but
satellites were built on grids just like every other planned military
facility. Eventually, he would find what he was looking for.
He did have to double back several times and climb down a lift shaft after
it stuck between floors. His internal clock called it nearly an hour,
if not a little more. Barton might be wondering where he'd gone. He might
be still working on the implant. Sally might have caught him, and it would
be in vain. Even if she hadn't waked and found them out, though, she would
eventually. And the phages might work, but they might not, and there was
no telling, yet.
He found the reactor core.
Zebra Tango had started life as a mining hub. He did remember that, now
that Barton had revived the forgotten fact. Long before Space had been
colonised there had been asteroid mining, dozens of remote facilities
laboriously built by the same robots that would staff them after. No humans
on board, not then; science hadn't yet found ways to deal with the radiation
issues, with the long and lonely travel times. And certainly they hadn't
anticipated sending two homosexuals together. They hadn't thought of that
even six months ago, when they'd put he and Duo on the same mission. Maybe
they hadn't imagined it was possible. Maybe they hadn't imagined that
sexual attraction could lead to a relationship. To love. Maybe they'd
thought that even if he and Maxwell solved that little problem by falling
into bed together, it wouldn't be a strong enough bond to make him fight
to save Duo's life.
It was a room, distinguished from the rooms surrounding by the extra-thick
doors and warning signs. Left by the robots to warn themselves? Posted
by the humans who had come generations after, when Space was no longer
the frontier but merely the next step. There was a key pad lock, no doubt
set to a password that had gone to the grave with persons unknown. There
were monitors, an entire bank of monitors, the screens blank, the controls
still. No dust, not here. The live link to Earth and the satellites that
had supported it were long gone. It was as good as useless. Inoperative.
No "On" switch, waiting to be flipped.
Besides, what good could it do? Uncontrolled radiation was deadly. There
was no question. They would be poisoned by it, as effectively as they'd
been poisoned already, but radiation would be an awful death, a painful
and slow death. Even if it killed the spore infection, they wouldn't survive
Unless. Unless, by some insane miracle...
Barton would never do it. He loved Duo and wouldn't risk him, not for
that, not if he couldn't bring himself to try biopsying that blister.
Too many doubts and no-one to validate a decision like that. Sally would
never agree. She was probably right. Under normal-- but these weren't
normal circumstances. There was nothing normal about this. There would
be no normal ending waiting for them, no success with normal measures.
They needed to reach for the abnormal, the unthinkable. The last resorts.
He fell asleep staring at the black screens, and didn't dream.
[part 7] [part 9] [back
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