Authors: TB and Marsh
see part 1 for notes, warnings

2.7 Kelvin + Part 9

Sally was the one who set off the alarm. Duo was missing.

They split off to search, each with a hand-torch and a quickly assembled belt-pack of emergency medical supplies. Barton and Sally both went deep into the station, and Zechs did as they did, at first. But within minutes he started to question his instinct. Where would Duo even have the strength to go? The station was a maze, and in his state Duo would be easily confused. Even if he'd wandered, he would never have made it far. Uneasily, Zechs abandoned his path up the corridors, and turned back to the clinic. He stopped there long enough to stare longingly at the bed Duo was supposed to be laying on, sheet still rumpled from the weight of his body.

The airlock was close, though.

It was a good guess. Zechs slowed his steps when he saw Duo there. Standing, unbelievably, though the claw-like hold he had in the curved titanium cross-bars on the lock suggested the desperate strength it required. Zechs steeled himself, and crossed the distance between them. Motion-sensitive lights cast brief golden circles on the corridor, going out as he passed out of range. The one over the airlock flickered in and out, as if Duo were only a ghost, too insubstantial to assure the light sensor.

"Duo," he said softly. He reached for Duo's shoulder, touching with just the tips of his fingers. Duo barely reacted. Zechs squeezed his shoulder carefully. "Duo, come back to the clinic."

Duo was shivering; the thin cotton of his gown was no protection from the cold of space that seeped through the station. His lank hair straggled about his shoulders, a lock of it caught at the corner of his mouth. Zechs freed it gently, gathering the loose strands back into the braid.

"Come back with me," he repeated. "It will be all right." He tugged Duo's fingers from their frantic grip on the crossbar. "I'll help you."

"It's got to be a phase of the disease," Sally said later. "He was clearly unaware of his surroundings." She took a syringe from their supplies and prepped three vaccutainer tubes. "I'll draw some blood for tests. Maybe we can pinpoint the change. A hormonal increase, maybe."

Zechs exchanged a concerned glance with Barton. So far Sally had not noticed the bacteriophage implant Barton had slipped into Duo during Sally's last sleeping shift, but that would all end if she had reason to examine Duo closely. The other doctor smoothly interrupted her attempt to sit at Duo's bedside, holding a cautionary hand in the space between them. "I'm not sure he can handle the bloodloss," he said.

That seemed to work. Sally chewed her thumbnail a moment.

"We'll keep him on fluids," Barton said. "And we'll watch him in shifts. We know the ultimate path of the disease, Sally. Let's hope we never have to have more detail than this."

"Can't argue with that optimism." She rolled her shoulders tiredly. "All right, I guess I don't see that it will impact the development of the 'phages. Back to work it is, then." She rose from her stool and walked back toward the computer consoles. A quick tap of her fingers on the keyboard lit the screens, and she settled in her chair with a slump.

The bacteriophage implant left a small red scar no thicker than the edge of a fingernail, and a little bump no longer than a knuckle. Zechs rubbed the inside of Duo's elbow where the implant nestled, wondering and worrying if it was doing its work well. Had Duo's sudden wanderings been part of it? Was it a sign he was getting better, that he was capable of getting up at all?

"Stop touching it," Barton muttered at him. "Sally will notice."

Zechs forced his hands into his lap. "When is it effective?"

"It can take up to forty-eight hours." Barton lifted a fresh banana bag of IV fluids from a cooler and hung it from the stand over Duo's bed. "And that assumes it works at all."

That was not comforting. "He walked on his own."

"Sally showed you the research. The host goes looking for a place to blow up where it can infect the greatest area." Barton touched Duo's wrist for his pulse, and then tenderly curled his fingers around Duo's hand. Zechs looked away. "It's not a good sign."

"But the 'phages will work. Soon."

"Maybe. I don't know."

"Then when do we know? When do we-- make a new decision."

"We should be making that decision now." Barton leant toward him under the guise of straightening Duo's IV lines. Duo's head rolled to follow his progress, but then his eyes closed and stayed closed. "I'd like to remind you of the reactor on station."

"You said it was a slim possibility it could even work."

Sally glanced back at them. Zechs ducked his head, aware that being seen speaking to Barton was enough to constitute odd behaviour. A moment later, she faced forward again.

"I said it could be as dangerous as the spores," Barton murmured, only loud enough to carry to Zechs' ears, and no louder. "The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced it's the only chance either of you have."

"And if it kills him?"

Barton didn't say. Probably he hadn't let himself think it even, not yet. Zechs did. Duo was dead no matter what they did for him. It was too late.

The sudden deafening beeping from the direction of the computer console made him jump, his heart pounding furiously. "What is that?" he demanded.

"It's Noventa." Barton left Duo immediately, striding long-leggedly to Sally's side. "Why's he hailing?"

Sally made the alert disappear by grabbing up a hand-held comm unit. She held it to her mouth, and said, "Zebra Tango responding. What's the problem?"

"This is Commander Noventa," a tinny voice replied. "I would like to request your presence, Dr Po, for a conference on board my ship."

Zechs stood. "I don't think you should agree," he said, sotto voce.

Sally looked back at him again. "I'm not entirely sure I have a choice, Zechs." She depressed the vocal again. "Could I ask what the conference is about?" she said. "I'll be better prepared if I have a moment to collect myself."

"No need, Doctor. You can come as you are."

"Cover-up," Trowa said.

"Conspiracy," Zechs corrected. "And they want to start picking us off one by one to join them."

"You don't know that," Sally returned. "And the fact of the matter is that they've got the bigger guns right now." She tugged at her braid. The move was so similar to Duo's habitual gesture that, for a moment, Zechs felt the sting deep in his chest. She put the comm to her mouth again. "Roger that," she said. "I'll be there as soon as I clean up here."

"Much appreciated, Doctor."

Barton shook his head. "Bad idea, Sal."

Sally stood. "I'll see what he has to say. If they do want one of us on their side, Noventa might be willing to make some concessions to us-- give us a little breathing room. Or it could just be Lena Matwari, ready to pronounce whatever doom she's manipulated out of our data, and she wants an audience."

Duo flapped a hand, trying to grab at the nearby rail of his gurney. Zechs quieted him. "Do you want one of us with you?"

"Let's not treat this with paranoia." She gathered charts and print-outs from the console, shuffling them into order. "I'll say the minimum I have to and I'll be back as soon as I can. Don't storm the airlock if I don't make it back in an hour. At this point, I'd even say the longer they drone on, the better it is for us. It means they haven't made any decisions about us yet."

Barton was chewing his lower lip. Zechs, too, felt a guilty twinge. Would she really disagree with them? Would she really fight them if they were just trying to help Duo?

"Sit tight," she added, and disappeared into the corridors. The brisk slap of her rubber shoes faded quickly away.

"Fuck," Barton said. He kicked half-heartedly at Sally's chair before slouching into it. "If Noventa's smart, he's called her there to tell her he's going to blow up the station and all of us on it. The common man hears 'infection' and grabs the nearest torch and pitchfork."

"We're not infectious."

"Yet. Sally tells him we don't have a cure yet, and he'll hear the toc tic toc." Barton moodily savaged his lip between his teeth. "What do you think?"

He had to press Duo's wrist gently to the bed. Wide dilated eyes skipped over his and settled closed. Zechs sighed out a lungsful of poisonous-tasting air. "I think he's going to try and turn it to his advantage. He'd be an idiot not too. Whether he destroys the data or not, the threat would be enough to frighten his political enemies."

"And Sally might just trade on that if she thinks she can negotiate something for us." Barton tapped his knee with drumming fingers. "You know why he's got her in there, and not either of us. Because she's a woman. He's working her."

Some bitter side of himself that had always looked with a curled lip on women like Sally and Lucretia Noin and Lady Une agreed. Women could be respected officers, competent warriors, strategists and even commanders, but too often their gender overrode otherwise neutral characteristics. Yet his more reasonable intellect insisted that Sally was one of the most stable persons-- female or male-- he had ever known; and that Noventa could have no effect on anyone in one short conference. It was merely a ploy, seeking any small advantage. Trying to pick the one out of the group who hadn't yet succumbed to a naturally suspicious personality flaw.

"I'm going for a while," Zechs said abruptly. "I need to think. Clear my head."

"You fall down out there and I don't find you this time--"

"We'll both live," he retorted, and told himself he hadn't just instinctively added 'for now', in his own head. "I've been cooped up here too long. I need to walk it off."

"Hey." He looked back over his shoulder. Barton had drawn his stool to the gurney, though he had his files and a hand-held computer pad tucked to Duo's side.

"What?" Zechs asked.

"He would have broken up with you, on Mars. He never stays. He doesn't know how."

"I was under the impression you broke up with him."

"Before he could do it to me."

"Maybe," Zechs said, "what he really wants is someone strong enough to follow when he runs."

Barton's jaw clenched. He turned his head down to his files, and didn't say anything else.

+

Eight, six, eight, six, eight, counter six--

He scrubbed his fingers dry on his shirt.

Eight. Six. Eight. Counter-- no. He wiped his hand again, both hands, and switched the length of pipe he held to his left.

Quarte. Semi-circular search to seconde, semi-circular to quarte. Again.

He tripped on his own bare feet, fetched up to the wall, unable to catch his breath.

He couldn't do it anymore. Couldn't remember it anymore. It would be there one moment, the routine he'd practised at least every week since earliest childhood, but then his arm would start to move and he lost all control of it. Every thrust was as clumsy as if he were a first-year student. His parries were too weak to withstand a live opponent. Too weak even for imaginary solo practise.

He began again. Duo had been able, been active until that last week on the ship, even with the dramatic loss of weight and muscle. Zechs could fight his own deterioration by exercise, by forcing himself to eat as Duo had refused to. Duo was the stubborn one, but Zechs owed his life again and again to the fact of his will. He could execute any maneouvre. Win any war. Rescue anyone-- if he just had the will.

But he failed.

He dented the wall with his fist, and the rattle of the pipe hitting the floor echoed in his ears like thunder. He couldn't save Duo. He couldn't save anything. And this insane idea-- using the reactor to irradiate Duo-- how could he agree? He couldn't even conceive what it would do to the human body. To Duo's fragile human body. Barton was obviously brave enough to risk it. Perhaps Duo would have been as well, if the choice were his. OZ had believed the Gundams to be elaborate suicide pilots, after all, and it had been a near enough thing, so many times. He had never been able to let go like that; to throw himself into certain death with no catch of his breath, like Heero Yuy, to abandon himself to the blackness of Space like Barton, to risk everything for the thrill of sheer possibility, like Duo. It required that kind of abandon to fate, this plan with the reactor. An insane abandon-- an insane amount of courage.

He didn't have it.

He scrubbed his sweaty hair back from his face and neck, and leant into the cool wall. This, at least, was familiar ground. He'd spent his life loathing himself for one thing or another. He bent his will to that and succeeded beyond all high expectation. He hardly knew how to twitch without berating himself to death for it. He held himself to impossible standards and relished his every miscarriage.

At least it amused his lovers. Duo dismissed him in these moods. Treize had been fascinated by them. Treize, of course, Treize had loved himself unabashedly. Say that for the man.

"How do you manage it?" Treize had asked him once. "Hating yourself so utterly while giving the impression that you believe yourself the only perfect human."

They had been in bed. He'd bit Treize's smirking lip, hard enough to sting, and said, "I just pretend I'm you."

He missed Treize. He wished he didn't. So much of their relationship had been ugly, had twisted and soiled the good. He had never expected Treize to die. Treize, he was sure, had done exactly what he meant to do, died exactly as he'd meant to die-- at the hands of a boy who couldn't possibly comprehend it all. Not that Zechs did. No, there was so much about Treize he'd never understood, and he'd never tried, in his lifetime or after. He'd never even mourned Treize.

He regretted that.

Become an adult, a Preventer, perhaps even a good man. Or a better man than he'd been. But if he'd figured it out, let himself... he wouldn't feel so crippled, facing what he did now. Knowing he might have to-- figure out how to mourn Duo.

He couldn't even imagine a future with Duo. Barton's words-- just jealous words, he knew that intellectually. Perhaps, though, not far off the mark. He knew Duo had been uncomfortable with the strength of his feelings. Hadn't truly believed him, at least at first. But they would have had time on Mars, among people, their peers, their fellow Preventers, and in that time Duo would have seen that Zechs did feel exactly as he promised to, and that his feelings were strong enough to wait out Duo's insecurity. Beyond Mars-- it was like meeting a blank wall that imagination couldn't pass.

But a future without Duo was even more impossible to imagine.

He hated paradox. He hated uncertainty. He hated the mess of such painfully human relationships. He'd managed to admit to love; that was always easy. Romantic. Ideal. The tarnish was inevitable. The emotional bloodletting.

No. No, he refused to mourn Duo. He would not. He would do whatever was in his power to forestall that inevitability. Even if it meant killing them both in that oven in the reactor. He would do it.

Because he couldn't imagine being alone again. Not again.

When he woke the next morning to find Barton bent over Duo, he sat up quickly, heart hammering. "Progress?" he husked.

Barton met his eyes. His bleak expression said it all. The tiny shake of his head destroyed the last breath of hope.

Duo didn't wake. He had passed into a coma.

+

"I can put her under," Barton whispered.

"Put her under?" Zechs repeated, not comprehending.

Barton touched a tray of syringes, rolling them tensely with a tiny click of plastic. "She'd sleep through it. We need uninterrupted time to work on the reactor, this could be the only way to get it."

Barton had been arguing him into it for almost an hour. Sally slumped before the computers, trying in her own way to force a cure out of the data. Zechs had paced himself sick.

Duo was not waking up. Neither of the doctors would say it, but he knew. Duo would never wake up, now, not without a miracle. Or a nuclear reactor.

"Merquise," Barton hissed.

He was prone to act. He longed to act-- to be able to just damn do something. But this?

He could not overcome this hesitation. His self-berating, his own fear of cowardice had laid bare any pretensions to a 'conservative approach', as Treize had once more kindly called it. But Treize had never hesitated over anything. How many years had Zechs wasted on wishes for that same confidence? If Treize were here, in fact, he had no doubt that Treize would have weighed the risks and the benefits and would have come up with a plan at the first sign Duo was ill.

Then again, Treize had never allowed love to blind him. Assuming he was capable of love of all.

But Zechs was. And it could make him weak, as it had with Treize. Or inspire strength. Couldn't be strong for Duo? Hadn't he been doing so already? He'd kept Duo strong, got him all the way here. But they had made it to Zebra Tango by pretending they didn't know Duo was fatally ill-- by pretending it wasn't their own friends and colleagues responsible for poisoning him. Both of them. He had denied the urgency he felt because he worried it was clouding his objective judgment.

"Merquise, we need to decide this."

"Give me time to think."

"What time?"

Sally stirred, glancing at them over her shoulder. Barton ducked his head to Duo; Zechs resumed his pacing.

The scrape of her chair made him start. "I'm going to shower," she said. "And make up the rest of that soup. The two of you should consider it. None of us can think on empty stomachs."

"Later, Sal," Barton said.

"Not too much later, Trowa." She gazed at them both. Zechs felt the weight of her eyes. But then she turned, and the curtain fell with a soft sigh as she left.

Perhaps it was his objective judgment that had clouded the one clear reality he knew. Duo would die if they didn't do something. Perhaps the bacteriophages would work, given time. Perhaps they even had the time. But Zechs himself was already infected. Barton and Sally were at risk as well. Noventa wouldn't be patient forever-- whatever his political leanings, he had a moral obligation to contain a deadly outbreak, and he would.

"Merquise--"

"What do we have to do to bring the reactor online?" he asked heavily.

Barton nodded tightly, his eyes intensifying in the dim light in his excitement. "I've been looking at it. I won't lie to you-- it's iffy, but I think it will fire. There were activations codes to hack. I got those last night."

Ah. Zechs noted that 'last night' and wondered just how long Barton would have waited to do this on his own. Which little syringe on that tray there might have been prepared for Zechs, anticipating drastic measures?

But really, why did Barton wait on his agreement at all-- unless he needed the validation? Perhaps it was a doctor's unwillingness to endanger a patient. Or a lover's fear of losing someone forever. With that, Zechs could sympathise. The paralytic fear stymied all action, and yet he was terrified not to act.

All pointless questions, in a way. The fact was that Barton had come to him, and now the decision was his. He would not have had it otherwise.

"And once activated," he said. "How long?"

"The manuals say twenty-five minutes. I'm hoping for something close to that. I don't think the reactor's been maintained at all."

More than likely, it hadn't been looked at since it was deactivated. The Alliance had never liked to budget for useless scrap heaps, and without Deep Space travel, that was all Zebra Tango was. "Say forty minutes at the outside," Zechs guessed. "I've been there to look at it. We need both an in-point and an exit that can be utilised even once the reactor is out-putting. If he vaporises in the chamber..."

Barton was chalky pale. But said, "It's all computerised. I can override automatic locks manually. As long as we can get in and get him out again, we can--"

"And how do we judge how long to keep him inside? Can you even read the metres accurately? You said exposing him--"

"He wouldn't want to go down without a fight."

So there would be no control, essentially. Only that radical notion of what Duo wanted. What they thought Duo wanted. The last insane, suicidal grasp at a cure that might kill. The tightness in his chest achieved an outlet; and he regretted even as it left his lips. "Maybe he would-- rather die than live a half-life. You didn't see him, in the last week before we boarded here. Maybe he would rather die than live crippled by disease. We have to at least... consider the idea."

"I know he wants to fight," Barton said harshly. "You should too. Look at the way he's lived his entire life and at least respect him enough not to give up."

"It's not a question of surrender." It was what Sally had told him-- that the damage might be permanent. And in his heart, Zechs didn't believe Duo would want to be saved just to live like this, a shell of himself, worse than disabled. Mindless. It was an affront to the fabric of the universe, a Duo Maxwell who couldn't speak out against injustices, a Duo Maxwell who couldn't argue for the truth, even if it was just his own truth; who couldn't exercise that unbending will to so much as decide for himself. Would it be better, would he think it was better, to die, than to live like that? Was Zechs wrong to gamble with something Duo might see as sacrosanct?

"We should make the most of our time," he tried, and had to clear his throat. "Get it activated."

Barton's shoulders fell slack in relief. "I'll get it started."

Duo lay limp and unmoving as a corpse, with only the heat of his fever to prove he was alive. Barton readied him, removing the IVs and the bacteriophage implant, Zechs wrapping him in extra blankets to protect him from the cold of the station's innards. The gurney, thankfully, was mobile; Zechs pushed it from the wall as Barton prepared a pile of supplies. Fresh IV solutions, morphine. Quite a lot of morphine, but Zechs stayed mum. They were to the point where contingencies had to be considered. Barton's hands were shaking, and there was a newly grim set to his jaw. Zechs imagined he looked much the same.

"Let's go," he said.

"Ready," Barton confirmed, stepping to the end of the gurney to help in steering. But almost as soon as he touched the rail he froze. "Do you hear that?"

"Sally," Zechs guessed, dropping automatically into a whisper. Futile. She hardly had any other stops to make, and her footsteps were coming closer. "Can you distract her?"

"She'll notice her patient has disappeared." Barton wiped sweat from his upper lip. "Fuck. What do we do?"

Zechs' heart was hammering his chest. He touched perspiration of his own; his temples and the back of his neck were soaked, and it was difficult to breathe, suddenly. He could not force himself into calm. Was this how Duo had felt? Trapped and unable to think beyond the rapidly dawning waste of his remaining options.

"We try to convince her," he said. "And if we don't-- be ready."

Barton gripped the gurney rail with both fists. He stared down at Duo's body. "Yes."

And then she was there. She turned the corner, her wet hair dripping down her scrubs as she bowed her head over the tray of soup bowls she carried. "I'm back," she called ahead to them. "We've got a cup of tomato and two of potato and leek--" And then Sally's head came up. She stopped where she stood, precisely in their path to the corridor beyond. "What are you doing?"

Barton turned to face her, squaring his shoulders. "We were doing nothing," he told her flatly, pleadingly. "We were letting him die."

It was only seconds for Sally to comprehend what she saw, at least enough to leap to stop it. She dropped her tray on the table and strode quickly toward them, locking her hands beside Barton's on the foot rail of Duo's gurney, squaring her body before it. "We weren't doing nothing," she said. Calmly, reasonably-- warily. "We're doing something as smartly as we can. Which is to get the right 'phage to attack the right disease."

"They sent the right fucking 'phage, didn't they? This was a set-up from the beginning."

"We don't know anything for sure." She stopped her younger colleague with a hand to his chest when Barton tried to push her aside. "We're scientists, Trowa. It's our job to conduct our own observations. And we're doctors, more importantly. Risky treatments harm more patients than they help."

"Neither of them have anything to lose, and very little time. We can't screw around making observations forever."

"Sally," Zechs interrupted. Her eyes flicked to his face. "It's not a choice we've made lightly. And you should know-- we've tried the 'phages already."

"What?" Her face went slack in shock. "How?"

"Implant," Barton said shortly. "And it didn't damn work." He studied her, eyes narrowed. "What are you hiding?" he demanded. "Are you operating with more information than I am, Sally? Or a different agenda?"

"You suspect me now?" Her blue eyes blazed. Through clenched teeth, she said, "I forgive that only because I know how much you care about Duo, but don't you dare suggest I'm part of the conspiracy, Barton."

"No-one suspects you," Zechs soothed, looking between the two doctors from lowered lashes. To have come so close-- he wasn't sure if he was relieved or ashamed. Barton scrubbed at the stubble on his cheek, breathing raggedly. "Look at him, Sally. Days? Even that? What is there left to slow down for?"

"I'm a doctor," Sally said. "I'm that boy's doctor. If he were well enough to make an informed decision I would help him do that, but you know as well as I do we make tough decisions for our patients because we know more than they do. And what I know is that if I slip up or rush ahead of myself, I can kill him. I'm not willing to do that, and you should damn well be ashamed that you are."

"He's out of time. You know that."

"When I give up I'll inform you. Meanwhile, you back off and let me do my job."

Barton was humming with humiliation and fury. Duo lay, the centre of all the drama, still as cordwood. "I'm not some green intern going off half-cocked, damn it," Barton snapped. "My treatment plan was sound."

"Unless it's not the right 'phage for the strain, in which case all you've done is waste time and resources and given Zechs-- yes, I just bet you talked him into this, assuming he didn't talk you into it-- giving him false hope. And that is green. And frankly, it's cruel, too."

"No-one is under any illusions here." Barton switched tracks, imploring her. "I've been looking at the fungal load in his blood hourly. If he was going to respond, it would have registered already."

"If you placed the right--"

"It's the only one we've got!"

Zechs ended the argument by lifting Duo from the gurney into his arms. Both doctors jumped toward him, but Zechs skittered back. "This is not your choice to make," he said loudly, over their protests. "I am going to do this."

Sally clung to his arm, but not to stop him-- she was supporting Duo's head, keeping his breathing passages open, touching the pulse in his throat. "Do what? Where are you taking him? Your ship? You won't make it anywhere else before--"

"There's a reactor on station. Barton and I agree it's time to try something drastic."

He was plenty close to see the wash of horror that went over her. "You'll kill him, Zechs!"

"He's already dead."

"Not like--" She covered her mouth, overcome. "Even if he were to die of the infection, Zechs, it's nothing compared to how awful his death of radiation poisoning would be. He could die of gamma burns. Even if he survived the exposure, his life would depend on intensive medical care that we just can't give him here. His bone marrow would be destroyed-- he would need a transplant. His gastric and intestinal tissue would be severely damaged. He could die of infection or even internal bleeding. He'll die delirious-- he'll go into a coma and even then he'll be in pain as his circulation shuts down completely. He could last a week, and it would be a horrible horrible week, Zechs. Don't do this."

He wavered. It was impossible not to, envisioning Duo suffering like that.

"I left the Alliance because they were willing to use biological weapons," she said. She pleaded with him. "I've seen the damage. I've held men and women in my arms as they died from something another human being justified in his heart."

He stepped back, away from her. "I am not inflicting some terrible punishment on him. Those men out there already did that. Preventers did it to us. I'm going to save him. If I can. And if I can't, at least..."

"We'll have tried," Barton finished. "So either help us or look the other way, Sally."

They made it two yards, on that gauntlet.

Then-- "No," Sally said. "I can't let you do that." There was a sound of hard plastic and glass overturning to the floor in a hurried shove, and then a sound Zechs would have known anywhere. The cocking of a gun.

His arms were tiring. Nor did his stomach appreciate the tension; he was nauseated, sweat cooling on his forehead. He might not have the strength to take Duo all that long way into the station. But it would be all the harder if he had to do it wounded.

He turned back with a deep breath. "I have nothing to lose, Sally," he said heavily. "Neither of us do. You won't shoot us."

"Put Duo down. I will fire."

And then Barton was between them. Holding a gun identical to Sally's, aimed not a chest-point, as hers was, but at her forehead. Now, though, his hands were rock-solid. "It doesn't have to be this way."

"If Duo dies, that will be very sad. But that's vastly different from being the man who ends his life."

Barton said, "I think I can live with it."

"Well I can't. I took an oath as a doctor, and I owe him as a friend. So either put him down, or this will get ugly."

Duo was frighteningly light in his arms. Yet he was weakening.

Sally's gun wavered between the two men. "Put him down, Zechs."

He shook his head in mute denial. He hugged Duo closer to his chest, and bent to kiss the crown of his head. "I can't. I won't."

"Which of us are you going to shoot, Sally?" Barton demanded. He waved Zechs back. "Move. We need to get him to the reactor."

Zechs began to move. His back tingled, so broad and unprotected a target, even with Barton between him and the weapon that aimed at him. But Sally's voice chased him like her footsteps. "If I have to," she called, "I'll fire at both of you. And you better believe that you won't get far even if you shoot me first. Any sign of fighting on station and Noventa will board with a dozen armed men. They will stop you."

They made it to the first turn past the crew quarters into the main corridors. There were fewer lights here, and the dark walls and short ceilings gave everything a nightmarish claustrophobia. Zechs said to the still air ahead of him, "You'd kill two men to stop a potentially life-saving treatment on a dying man?"

"Yet one more sign that you're not operating at full capacity, Zechs."

"Zechs," Barton said, "Make a break for it."

He made it one step. And then the retort of a gun had him sprinting for the cover of an off-branching hallway. He didn't look back until he was past the corner, safe behind the wall. He slid to a crouch, cradling Duo over his knees. The sound of a scuffle behind him went on, grunts and fleshy impacts-- and then, the heavy thump of a body falling to the floor. Panting breaths limped toward him, and he held Duo close, preparing to run.

Barton appeared at the head of the hall. Sweat streaked his face and the front of his scrubs, but the dark splotch leaking down his leg was blood, from a gunshot just beneath his knee. He gripped the wall to keep himself upright, as Zechs rose with Duo.

Trowa pressed two bloody fingers to Duo's neck for his pulse. He turned flat eyes up to Zechs. "She was probably right about one thing," he said. "If Noventa's men are monitoring us at all, they'll have noticed the reactor powering up. One of us will have to stay back to slow them down. We need time."

Zechs twisted once to look back as they moved on. The motion-sensor lights had already gone out, and all he could see was a dark form sprawled there behind them. He didn't ask if she was still alive, but his throat was tight.

"Do you want to stop and see to that?" he asked.

Barton shook his head sharply. "I'll bandage it while you and Duo are in the unit."

"Can you block the airlock at all?"

"Much as I'd love to, they probably would blow us out of Space for that." Barton relied on the wall for balance, but propelled himself along at considerable speed, forcing Zechs to hurry to keep up. "When we get there, I'll find you that way in. We'll put him in there. We'll need to be on the outside, past the shielding, or we'll be exposed as well. One of us will be, getting him out. Even when it's turned off there will be residual radiation."

"I'll do it," Zechs said. "Don't argue with me. You've got an open wound. I'm not a scientist, but that's too much danger."

"We'll see."

"How will it work?"

"Doses of total body irradiation in controlled conditions are usually at 10 to 12 Grays, but that's with aggressive medical care. And that's when it's fractioned. Sally was-- Sally was right, this could make him almost as sick as he is now." Barton grimaced deeply, but pushed himself onward. "The best we can do is aim for something below fatal. And wait."

And then they were there. Barton found the light panel, throwing the bay into sharp relief. Without the darkness, it took on a monstrous implacability. All the graphic warnings pasted to the doors loomed larger than they had when he'd been here only-- only thirty hours ago. He hadn't truly imagined it then. Could he live with himself, if Duo died in there? Died alone, a frail beating heart that had so far refused to give up even as the body around it withered hour by hour. Could he say with certainty that if it were him, he would want another to make that decision for him, if the hope were so slim?

Not questions with which he was comfortable. Not questions he thought he could bear. He never analysed himself past the point where it began to sting; he wasn't that brave, wasn't that strong. But he was well past that point now. Point of no return.

And that was when he made the decision to enter the chamber with Duo.

If they died together, so be it. There was a certain fairness in accepting the same fate he consigned Duo to. And a certain clemency in-- a suicide committed under these conditions. A suicide and a murder.

Barton propped himself on the control console, fingers flying in whatever sequence he had read in his research. A low thrum of waking machinery did begin around them. And a window he had not known was a window was suddenly awakened to brightness, displaying the very chamber Zechs had imagined-- concrete, steel, snaking pipes, and, in the centre of the chamber, the almost rocket-shaped core itself.

"The containment chamber," Barton told him shortly. "That's the reactor in there. It's the final barrier to radioactive release. When you're inside the chamber, you need to open the repair release on the reactor vessel. That will release the radiation from the core. There might be steam. Emergency systems will condense any steam that escapes, so he'll be safe from scalds. But it could create fallout-- irradiated water." He put his palm on a crank, and pushed it up to the highest lock. "I think-- I think it needs twenty minutes at this level of exposure."

"All right," Zechs said, the most he could speak just then. "All right."

"We'll have to count it. None of the clocks loaded on their own and I couldn't reset them."

"All right." His arms ached. He was dizzy. If only Duo could give him some sign. Some sign. The waiting was hell.

"It's up," Barton said finally, shattering the quiet hum. "We're go."

"Get that door open."

Barton punched a button. Clamps released, though red lights lit all over the console. "Go," Barton said. "And then get back here."

It was time. It was happening.

"Go," Barton repeated.

He had to bend under the low lintel, and he was only inches through when the door slid shut behind him. It was much louder inside the chamber. Pumps, compressors, and electric equipment all contributed to the noise. None of it was as deafening as the silence in his own head.

There was a short ladder up the side of the reactor to the second level. He climbed it backward, clinging with his elbows as he pushed himself up step by step, holding Duo close. He got the release open in the same way, operating the lever latch between his shoulder and cheek. It was large enough for a man of his bulk, if only just. By squirming and forcing it, he got Duo through first, unable to cushion him against a slight fall over the lip of the hatch, then scrambled in after him. He unwrapped the blankets, so that they wouldn't block the radiation. He cupped Duo's drawn face, and turned to the reactor core.

One final deep breath. He opened the repair release.

There was a single loud clack. He felt nothing. He didn't look down into the dark of the core. He didn't want to see it. He simply turned his back on it, dropping to the concrete at Duo's side.

He was scared. He could admit that much, holding Duo's thin hand in both of his. It was doom he felt hovering around him, as if the radiation that was now flowing out to surround them could be a taste on his tongue. They were trapped here together, in this little chamber no larger than one of their suites on the ship. Their ship. Even given what it had done to them, he couldn't regret the time they'd had there, together.

"Ti takAya valnUyashaya," he whispered. "Ti takAya Iskrennaya. Ti--"

Duo shuddered. He rolled his head, his free hand falling beside his head, fingers curled to a fist.

Was it working? "It's all right, Duo," he said. He brushed Duo's hair back, kissed the hand that he held; until Duo pulled it away. Awake at last, but he wouldn't settle. His wasted legs began to move restlessly, as the air around them became muggy and warm. The escaping steam. A flashing light began from the other side of the window; he looked, but couldn't see Barton, couldn't see anything. If Barton could see them, he would know Zechs wasn't coming back.

"Duo, shh," he whispered. "Lie still. Not much longer." He was counting the seconds. One-hallelujah, two-hallelujah, three. Fourteen minutes more.

Maybe Duo could feel it. He pushed Zechs away with strength he hadn't had since before they'd docked at Zebra, shoving at him when Zechs tried to gather him close. His eyes were open wide, dilated to black, and his breathing was deeper, ragged. He shook like a leaf in a headwind.

Ten minutes. The flashing light took on an urgent frenetic pulse. Zechs heard the steam escaping, now.

Duo moaned. Zechs held his arms as tightly as he could, but Duo fought him with sudden strength. He kicked, he thrashed, even as bruises bloomed on his skin from Zechs' grip. His voice rattled in his throat.

Zechs knew, then. He knew what was coming. "Don't," he begged. "Don't leave me. Duo, no."

Duo wrenched free one final time. He clawed with both hands at the back of his head. At the spore blister.

It was a fine mist. Faintly moist. It smelled-- dusty. Fecund, almost rotten. Zechs breathed in just as it exploded into a cloud around them both. It made him cough. He hacked, strangled, trying to smother it in his arm, until he could breathe again.

All movement ceased. Duo lay utterly still now. His eyes were closed. Zechs felt his neck. His fingers were numb, but he didn't think he could feel anything. He didn't think-- didn't think Duo was--

"I'm sorry," he choked. "Duo. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." His eyes burned. Hot tears spilled over his face, roughly swiped away as he bent his head to Duo's still chest. "I'm sorry," he repeated mindlessly. "I failed you."

The light stopped flashing. Even it was dead.

He wished he was. He would be, soon. All he had to do was stay in here. If he stayed in here long enough, he would die, too. He was ready. He'd been ready his whole life.

One minute. One-hallelujah. Two-hallelujah.



One minute past the time limit.

Two.



He felt Duo's chest move. He wasn't sure of it, at first. He didn't comprehend it at first. How could it mean anything, now?


Three.


Duo's head moved. His chin fell back. And his hand, locked in Zechs', curled over his fingers.

+

He made it to his knees, creaking and wobbly. He saw a slit of white beneath Duo's lashes. He felt weak, dangerously so, and could only pull Duo along with him back to the hatch, to the ladder. He kicked the hatch wide, sliding his legs out to tug Duo after him.

"Hand him out now! Quickly!"

Man's voice-- not Barton. Zechs risked his balance for a quick look. A man-- three men, suited against the radiation, all with out-stretched arms. Noventa's men. Noventa himself, right there at the ladder, nearest to him.

It took both of them to get Duo down the ladder, and Zechs watched with his heart in his throat as they hurried Duo away, out the chamber and off into the bowels of the station. One of the suited soldiers remained behind, gesturing for him to come down as well. "Come on, Agent Merquise," he said. "We need to get you to the clinic."

A tremor raced up his spine. Over? He didn't know. He felt-- too light. Lifting his hand to grasp the man's arm felt like-- swimming. As if he were a ghost already.

Barton wasn't outside anymore. More of Noventa's men, arguing over the controls. They stopped as one, as Zechs was hurried past. They stared after him as he went.

A woman he didn't know was in the clinic now, grey hair wound in a tight chignon and a pinched face expressive of distaste. Her white coat identified her as a doctor. It must have been that Lena Matwari, the woman both Barton and Sally had condemned as an opportunist. Something in him wearily protested to see her taking over territory that had in some way belonged to him, but he said nothing.

"The showers," Matwari told his guard. "He needs to be washed of any fallout. Hurry."

And so he was hustled off again, two of Noventa's men bringing him to that row of crew quarters they'd powered up a week ago. The door to their usual one was open, crowded with armed men. He heard a raised voice inside-- Barton.

They pushed him into the quarters beside that room, flipping on the harsh lights overhead, pushing him into the little bath suite. One reached into the shower and set it running. "Someone find soap," he snapped, as he unhooked a little hand-held console from his belt. He ran it over Zechs' body as he was forcibly stripped by the other men. "Keep your suits on, everyone. Let's not take chances."

"I can do it myself," Zechs interrupted, still with that feeling of being far underwater. He resisted the shove that tried to push him under the shower flow. "I can--"

"I'll help." It was Sally. She wore a square of gauze on her temple that had a dark spot of blood on it, and there were walls up in her eyes now. But Noventa's men deferred to her, and she produced an old-fashioned bar of soap and a scratchy flannel. "Wash everything, even your hair," she told him. "There was steam in the chamber, and your skin will be the most affected. Get off as much as you can."

"Duo," Zechs said. Her gloved hands urged him under the spray, and he went. He soaped the flannel slowly, until his mind waked to what he was meant to do. "Duo. Is he--"

"He's alive," Sally said. "That's all I can say right now. I'm going back to him. Do you understand me? Wash everything, twice. Three times. And then they'll take you back to your ship."

"The ship? Why?"

"Under guard," she said. "Noventa's moved to take Zebra Tango under control. We don't have choices any more."

[part 8] [part 10] [back to TB and Marsh's fiction]