8-10-2000

Standard warnings and disclaimers apply: It's not my fault. Deal with it.

 

Pyractomena Borealis Part IX

 

Heero must have been using the word "tomorrow" loosely when he told me about the mission, because it wasn't even quite midnight when a rough, warm hand on my shoulder shook me awake. I'd been having a really weird dream, where I was walking up and down the aisles of the local grocery store, searching desperately for a jar of crunchy peanut butter, while everything they had was smooth. I wasn't all that upset about being woken up. I'd gotten a good four hours of sleep from the time Heero had finished briefing us all on the mission until now, so I couldn't complain. Heero probably hadn't gotten any sleep at all. Not that it ever seemed to bother him. Unlike us mere mortals, the perfect soldier didn't need to take such petty things as naps.

Ok, so maybe I was just a teensy bit grouchy about being woken up, weird dream or no. So sue me.

As soon as Heero saw I was awake and not just faking it like I've been known to do all too often, he released my shoulder and moved away. Light trickling into the room through a crack in the curtains gave me just enough illumination to see by; I've got pretty good night vision. In the watery light, everything looked washed out and grainy, like an old black and white photograph. Heero's back seemed to glow palely. As he reached down to retrieve his shirt from the floor where it lay in a dull, dark pile, the muscles across his back rippled in a pattern of complex shadows, smoothly playing across his luminous skin, distracting me from thoughts of a mission for one long, stomach clenching minute.

Thank God for three things--Heero put his shirt on quickly to end my little test of self control before it could really get started, he didn't look back at me until he was done getting dressed, and by the time he did, I'd managed to paste a faintly human expression on my face and stop drooling overtly.

Heero raised an eyebrow at me, and I scrambled out of bed, hastily turning my back and slipping my own shirt on, leaving it untucked for once. Heero didn't need to know exactly how awake I was feeling. I was pretty sure that I was blushing--my face felt so hot that I was waiting for it to melt and run off onto the floor. I hoped to hell that the dark was hiding it. I did not want to deal with this right now. I had a mission to think about.

After a moment of consideration, I strapped my shoulder rig on and retrieved the Browning from its home under my mattress. There was no real reason for me to take the gun on this mission, since there was an almost zero chance that I would be out of Deathscythe's cockpit as anything other than a corpse during it. The almost is what always gets me, though. In my opinion, it's better to have the gun and not need it...because the one time you leave it behind is the time that you will spend the rest of your life cursing yourself for not bringing it along.

I knew this from personal experience.

Once I got myself all strapped together, Heero jerked his head toward the door. I headed out without even bothering to nod. All of us had agreed long ago that when we went on these night missions, silence was of the utmost importance when we were trying to get out to our Gundams. I never could figure out teachers managed it, but old professors who couldn't hear dynamite going off right underneath them could somehow hear a student two buildings away sneaking out of his room.

Trowa and Quatre were waiting for us just outside of the second set of dormitory doors. The light was only slightly brighter outside; thick clouds cloaked the entire sky, completely covering the moon and allowing only three or four stars to peek through. In the dim light, Quatre looked like a ghost, pale skin and hair, only his face and his hands visible with everything else covered by a dark flight suit. His eyes were very wide, but I knew better than to think he was scared. Quatre had really bad night vision; he was too used to his deserts, where even the light of the stars would reflect up from the sands and illuminate everything brightly enough to see. Normally on night missions, one of us had to lead him to where the Gundams were hidden because until he was in Sandrock's cockpit, he was as blind as a bat minus the sonar.

I could remember one of the few times we'd actually shared a dorm room, when I'd first gotten to know him. He'd been trying to find something in the middle of the night, but hadn't wanted to wake me up, so he'd left all of the lights out. He'd walked into the shower and turned it on, thinking that the on/off faucet was a doorknob. After I'd finally managed to stop laughing and had changed my underwear, I promised him that I'd never mention it again. I was keeping pretty good on the promise...I only reminded him of it three or four times--a week.

Everyone thinks that Quatre's really nice. They've obviously never had him try to kill them.

As soon as we were a safe distance from the dorms, we all broke into a run at nearly the same instant. Sheer force of habit. We had had to do this often enough in the last year and a half that everything was reflex; we all had the same pace, a ground eating lope that somehow got us everywhere fairly fast without making us too out of breath, a pace we could keep up for miles if necessary. We all wore the same dark flight suits, a mottle of dark green, blue, and black. Most of our missions were night missions.

The Gundams weren't hidden too far away, only about two miles into the woods that stood conveniently close to the school. I can't say I was happy about the little run to get to them, though. I never liked the deep woods at night to begin with, and I liked them even less after the little incident with Kalin six months ago. Still, it wasn't too bad of a run. For most of the way to the Gundams' hiding place we were on well defined hiking paths that were clear of overhanging branches and free of slippery grass.

We fell neatly into a single file line, since the path wasn't really wide enough for more than one person at a time. As always, Heero took the lead and I took second place, since I had the best night vision in the group next to him, and I was the only one that could see him really well. At night, nearly black hair and a dark flight suit do not an easy person to follow make. Quatre was in line behind me, watching the white hair tie that I'd purposefully put in my braid for him. It was pretty much the only thing he was able to see on these night treks, just a little white line bouncing up and down as my braid flapped behind me. I had no idea how he managed not to get motion sick at moments like these. Trowa was close on his tail; he was the only one out of all of us that was graceful enough to catch Quatre and pull him back to his feet without breaking stride. Last, of course, was Wufei. He was the best rearguard I'd ever met, which was saying a lot after working with some of Howard's people. I had no idea how he did it, but his hearing and sense of smell were frighteningly acute at times, and his night vision was nearly as good as mine. He always seemed to know if opposition was coming before anyone else.

After nearly twenty minutes of running, I was only just starting to feel the strain. The dark blob ahead of me that was Heero made an abrupt turn off the path, leaping over a tangle of roots. Without even thinking about it, I followed him, my braid whipping around in a wide arc as I jumped over the roots as well, hitting the ground running. There was an odd scuffling sound behind me, and then silence again; Quatre must not have noticed me jumping and tripped over the roots...but Trowa would have gotten him back on his feet almost immediately, so no problem. A bare instant later, we broke out of the cover of the trees and were suddenly running up the side of a pretty steep grassy hill. We were almost there.

In only a few seconds, we were over the crest of the hill and on flat ground. Not a hundred meters away, I could see the dark, oddly shaped bulges of our camo-net covered Gundams. /Oi, Deathscythe,/ I just thought, since I knew better than to make a sound until we were mounted up, /Ready for an adventure?/

***

"T-minus six hours and five minutes to destination." Heero said expressionlessly over the general comlink.

He was always the first one ready to go. I never could figure out how he did it. I always wondered if he had one of those little keychain remote things to start Wing like they had for cars. Nah. There was a hiss of air as I finished securing the hatch behind me before I climbed into my own personal little throne of destruction and started strapping myself down. I had to make sure to pull everything tight; the one time I'd been too sloppy about it, I'd gotten thrown around the cockpit a bit in a fight. It had taken almost a week to clean up all the blood.

"Confirmed." Quatre's voice came through, slightly fuzzy with static. He'd proven time and again that he was a better tactician than even Heero, so he normally took over once we were ready to go. Heero didn't seem to have a problem with it, and he normally kept himself busy running through the mission logistics and keeping us all up to date on everything. "Duo and Wufei, take point. Heero, you're eye in the sky. Trowa and I will give you one minute and fifteen seconds to get fully operational, then a five minute lead. Thirty minutes before we reach the target destination, we'll regroup. Until then, let's keep voice traffic to a minimum." Business as usual. Deathscythe, Shenlon, and Wing were all faster than Sandrock and Heavyarms, so we usually took the scout positions.

"Roger that." I said, clicking the send channel of the voice commlink off. I heard a crackle, then Heero's 'Ryoukai' and Wufei's 'Affirmative.' Quatre had given us 75 seconds to get our Gundams up, which wasn't impossible as long as I didn't screw up. My right hand pulled the last strap over my thighs tight even as I started my Gundam's start sequence with the left. There was an immediate, low rumble, one that I could feel in my jawbone rather than hear as the engines that moved Deathscythe's arms and legs started to cycle up. Those had to be started first; they took longer than the computer systems did to boot. Speaking of the computer systems...the HUDs around the cockpit lit up, each displaying a blinking green cursor for a moment before commands started to scroll across them. Diagnostics didn't come up with anything wrong in the computer systems, hydraulics, or the reactor, so next thing I knew, the screens were filled with the diagrams I was used to seeing; radar, diagnostic diagram of Deathscythe, and so on and so on.

73 seconds later, Deathscythe was on its feet and moving to take left point. Radar showed that Wing was already in the air, and I could see Shenlon standing up on my visual display. Right on time. I set the coordinates for the ground zero that the mads* had given us in the mission briefing and then sat back to relax as the autopilot took over.

That's the thing that always got me about missions...the hurry up and wait part. Drives me nuts. Not that I have a short attention span or something. I just don't like being bored...and for the most part, the travel time to get to the battleground is just that--boring.

Still, this mission was important enough that I wasn't going to complain. The mads had intercepted an Oz transmission last night, and had managed to confirm that it was without a doubt real, apparently, since they wouldn't have requested us all to go out otherwise. Oz was sending a shipment of mobile suits into the Tokyo base before dawn this morning. Since Tokyo had the best surface to space facilities, it was pretty damn obvious that they were meant to get shipped off into space...which also meant that as they were, they wouldn't be able to fight on the ground, even if the pilots were with the shipment. The area it was going through as it headed for Tokyo was almost completely uninhabited, and on the side of the city furthest from the base. It was a perfect time to save ourselves and the colonies a lot of grief later, as well as set Oz back an absolutely wonderful amount by destroying nearly a year of their work in one fell swoop.

And besides, the intelligence indicated that the mobile suit of a very high ranking commander would be in the shipment as well.

In other words, not only were we going to run those bastards off the road, we were going to moon them while doing so. Life was good.

I glanced at the time up at the corner of one of my HUDs. Five hours, fifty three minutes. The flat, featureless lines of rice paddy after rice paddy stretched out in front of me, glowing green and yellow in the infrared overdisplay I had on for dark run missions.

Something bright orange and red darted across my screen. Too small to be human, it was probably something like a dog.

It was going to be a long wait.

***

"I don't like this." Wufei's voice was almost a hiss, a soft whisper distorted by static." Even in the tiny thumbnail of him that I had up on the comm HUD, he didn't look happy.

As I scanned the horizon, I had to admit, I didn't like it either. It was growing progressively lighter in the east by the second; dawn was coming pretty early these days...but then again, we'd been searching the area for nearly forty minutes.

Military shipments wouldn't come this late. It just didn't happen.

Even worse than the light on the horizon was the mist that had come rolling in from God knows where, probably off of all the rice paddies. I'd had to turn the infrared on my video HUD off, which I didn't like one bit. I hadn't had much of a choice, though. The heavy, warm fog was obscuring everything with a red and orange haze on the enhanced mode, even worse than the twisting grey mass cloaked everything in pure visual.

"We wait." Heero said shortly, his voice sour. "We're still in our time range, abort will not be allowed for another twenty minutes."

"All the same, I have a bad feeling about this." Quatre said softly. Everyone was speaking in hushed tones, even me, despite the fact that no one would be able to even hear us screaming through half meter thick plates of Gundanium armor.

All of a sudden, it wasn't a terribly comforting thought.

The tiny thumbnail picture of Quatre rubbed its forehead. It could have been video jitter, since transmissions were becoming more and more uncertain as the humidity continued to rise, but his hand looked like it was shaking slightly. "I have a very bad feeling about this." His voice melted into a static hiss, snow dancing across the entire video screen. The pattern of it wasn't regular enough to be a jamming signal. We were ok. I had to keep telling myself that. My stomach suddenly felt like I'd swallowed a block of ice.

"I'm losing radar and comm links." Trowa said quietly. It was the first time he'd spoken in the entire mission, and it was hard to make out what he was saying above all of the back noise.

"You're fine." I said. "I can still see you, co-ordinates twelve alpha nine, seven gamma three." I could hear the others chiming in, confirming my reading.

"It's nice to know I s--" His voice faded completely into static for a moment before coming back. "--exist. However, the problem is--" More static crackle, "--n't see anyone." His picture blurred. "--ver."

"What?" I glanced down at my on radar HUD. It was losing coherency, fading out. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. When I looked back up, Trowa's picture was gone from my comm display. "Whoa, wait a sec. Guys, where the hell did Trowa go?"

"I think he said he was rebooting his systems. Maybe he thought they weren't talking properly to the hardware." Wufei said.

Quatre's voice broke in. He was doing his best not to sound concerned, and failing miserably. "I told him to move in to where he could see us on visual."

Despite the fact that I could feel sweat dripping down my forehead, a result of all of the hot, humid air that Deathscythe's intake system was bringing in, I shivered. "Quatre, humor me. Let's all move into visual range, ok?" I knew I was worrying over nothing. Duo the old grandma. That's me. I hope.

There was a low rumble above me, and the fog stirred, then shredded into a thousand tiny pieces as Wing roared over the valley not twentyfive meters above me. "Thanks Heero." I said, trying to keep the relief out of my voice. "Visual confirmation on Heero." The fog stirred again, close to the ground and I saw a shadow move in, barely identifiable as Gundam shaped.

"I have visual on you, Duo." Quatre said. "Wufei?"

Nothing but static hiss.

"Wu-man?" I glanced at the comm HUD. Wufei was gone. Oh shit. I hit the frequency scan button, hoping that Wufei had just flipped to a different channel. The computer came up empty. "We're missing Wufei." My voice sounded way too calm to my own ears.

Quatre sounded grim. "I know...wait, I think I see him. I'm getting vi--" his transmission broke up for a second. "--shape in the fog--" The shadow that was Sandrock moved away from me. "--ckup--" Static hiss.

"Quatre?" My grip on Deathscythe's sticks suddenly tightened, and I did an abrupt direction change that slammed me against my safety harness. "Q-man, damnit, talk to me. Heero, do you have visual?"

"--ativ--"

Heero got cut off by something worse than a static hiss. "--USH! P--" Quatre's voice suddenly screamed through the comm link. For an instant, I could see the picture of him on my screen. "--OUT! PULL OUT!" It vanished, leaving nothing but static and silence in its wake.

"Shit!" I yelled. I hit the accelerator on one of the control panels and was rewarded by the engines powering Deathscythe's leg servos letting out a high pitched whine. The Gundam obediently broke into a run, jerking me back hard against my seat. "Heero! Last known position!" I freed my hand from the Gundam's controls long enough to tap his picture, making it full screen. "Respond, God damnit!"

Something wrong indeed. Holy shit.

"--peat--" His picture fuzzed out. "--umber of opponents, assista--"

"HEERO!" The fog to my side was glowing green, reflecting the light of the thermal scythe. I couldn't see a goddamn thing, just a wall of blank fog. "Someone answer me..."

The only answer was the ground beneath Deathscythe suddenly jumping. For a minute, I thought it was an earthquake as the gyros in the Gundam's legs fought to keep me upright. There weren't any aftershocks, though. Just one big jerk, and it was done.

Like something had hit the ground nearby.

Something big.

Something Gundam-sized.

"HEERO, ANSWER ME!" I frantically hit scan again as my own radar HUD fuzzed out completely, becoming nothing but a green haze on the monitor.

For an instant, a picture crossed with lines of static jumped onto the comm HUD. It was Heero, his eyes wide and dilated so much that all you could see was black. His mouth was open like he was yelling something, and there was blood streaming from his nose and running down his forehead. Something nearby him exploded in a burst of bright white magnesium light...

Static.

"NO!" I was screaming. I could feel it, feel my throat becoming raw.

This was not happening. This was supposed to be a cakewalk, a fucking cakewalk.

"Calm down." I whispered. "Come on, you've got to get out of here. Remember the mission. Remember the mission. Someone has to get out so they can do clean up."

I couldn't. No. I couldn't leave them. But I had to. But I couldn't.

Even while I was caught in indecision, my instincts knew what to do. Deathscythe was taking slow, careful steps back. Even if Duo the person couldn't figure out what the hell needed to be done, Duo the soldier knew the score. "Calm down." I whispered.

I was calm. I was Duo, the Gundam pilot. Pilots don't panic in battle, no matter how big the shit hits the fan.

Pilots kick ass.

I transferred the thermal scythe to one hand, freeing the buster shield up on the other. The thermal blade at its tip powered up, adding another glow to the fog. "You want a piece of Shinigami, you bastards? COME GET SOME!!!" I yelled out into the general comm frequency.

Silence.

Something hit me from behind, slamming me against my harness and causing Deathscythe to stumble, fighting to maintain balance. I wrestled with the controls, forcing the Gundam to turn and bringing the scythe to bear even as the gyros were fighting just to keep me upright. I couldn't see anything, just a bank of swirling grey fog. And a chain. There was a fucking chain made of black metal, reaching out of the fog, wrapped around Deathscythe's left arm.

"What the hell are you bastards playing at?" I snarled. A sweep of the scythe sliced easily through the chain, and it dropped back into the fog. "COME OUT HERE AND FIGHT, DAMN YOU!"

A part of me was laughing, thinking how ridiculous it was. Me, the master of espionage, pissed off beyond belief because someone wouldn't blow their cover and fight me straight up.

I didn't give a shit. Better pissed than pissing my pants. Missions didn't happen like this.

There was another jerk, and I turned with it, ready to slice through the chain that had suddenly wound itself around my left leg. Except my right arm, the one with the scythe, couldn't move. There was another chain wrapped securely around it. "DAMNIT!"

Something metallic clanged against Deathscythe's hull, and I was pulled abruptly backwards. All I had time to say was "Oh shit..." before we hit the ground. My head met the back of the pilot's seat, and everything was dark for a second. When I opened my eyes again, I tasted blood, and there was something dripping in my eyes that I'd lay two to one odds wasn't cherry kool-aide. The cockpit was a confused jumble of static and light as one by one, the HUDs started coming back up.

After a short struggle, I had myself unstrapped, and I kicked the visual HUD sharply. It snapped into life, showing the same old view of grey fog. That didn't matter. I was doing turtle belly-up on the sand, and I was secured down. I was fucked.

For some reason, the entire situation had me feeling nothing. My emotions had retreated, whimpering, into their corner, and all that was left was Duo the soldier, Duo the pilot. Thank God he knew what the hell he was doing.

One hand hit the cycle button for the cockpit's hatch, while I reached for the self destruct device with the other.

Light flared up on the visual display, and I hesitated for a moment.

Suddenly going cold all over again.

Everywhere in the fog, yellow lights were flaring up, hanging like jewels scattered over grey silk.

Eyes. They looked like fucking eyes. Hundreds and hundreds of pairs.

Something slammed into the cockpit, throwing me away from the self destruct device. Things blacked out again for a split second.

I opened my eyes. My cheek hurt, stung like all hell. In front of my eyes, I could see a long, thin, dagger-like line speared through one side of the cockpit. It took a moment to register. A harpoon. One edge had cut into my cheek, right under my eye. This couldn't be happening. Things did not just go through Gundanium armor.

Only one thing mattered. I reached toward the self-destruct device again, my fingers seeming to stretch impossibly long and thin in front of me.

There was a hiss, and then the cockpit was flooded with green gas, filling my head with a sick, cloyingly sweet stench.

Everything went dark.

 

 

* Mine, and Duo's little MST3K homage. Previously (if I remember correctly ^^;;;) Duo has referred to the scientists as "the mad scientists." That gets shortened to "the mads" which is what Mike/Joel call Dr. Forrester and Tv's Frank. :)