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 patient.”
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 uncle.”
“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 to know.”
“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 disappointment.
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 in half.
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 it.”
“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 was healthy.
“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 feel well.
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 and angry.
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 the patient?”
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 over.
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 treatment.”
“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 ache.
"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 equipment here?”
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 the treatment.
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.