"Everything checked out alright?" Quatre asked.
"I told you I was fine," I answered coolly, even though Quatre had shown no particular concern when he had asked. He was just trying to help, but he would pay the price for it. Unwilling to hazard a glance at Duo, I redirected my emotions toward Quatre instead. "I can authorize Sally to make the report available to you, if it'll make you feel better."
The slight tilt of his head was both an acknowledgement and a faint reprimand. He knew he wasn't meant to be my target, but that didn't mean he had to take it. "I'm sure that won't be necessary. We're glad you're okay."
I lost the battle to keep my eyes off Duo, but when my gaze landed on him, he was still slouching in his seat, staring at the papers in front of him. Wufei, on the other hand, was looking my way, but I in turn refused to do anything other than ignore him. Foiled in my original goal, I studied the array of the room and got back to business. "So where are we right now?"
I suffered a brief silence, as if no one quite expected me to ask that, but what else was there to do? If this was the way that things were going to be, then I wasn't going to sit here and wallow and brood. Especially not when there were things to be done. And especially not in front of everybody. If someone wanted to say something about it, that was fine. Either way, something productive was going to happen.
Again, Quatre was the one that pushed things along, taking charge as if he'd been here the entire time. "I'm nearly up to speed on everything that's been going on so far. First off, I hear we have two prisoners in the hold. As soon as I get a full report on the situation, I'd love to meet them."
"You can't just 'meet' them, Winner," Wufei grumbled sharply. "You're not even a member of the team right now."
"Well, let's just rectify that, shall we? I believe there's some paperwork that I need to file, yes? Wufei, why don't we go take care of that now." He stood, leaving Wufei no choice in the matter. "Trowa? You can find some reason to excuse yourself in the next five minutes, or stay here and chaperone these two. Your choice." He patted Barton congenially on the shoulder as he swept by on the way out of the room, Wufei forced to follow.
Damn that little blond. What had he been doing, just keeping the room warm until my return? While Duo decided to direct his glare at the closed door, I locked stares with Trowa, unsure of what I wanted, but no less pissy for it. I'd gotten what I wanted: something. Now I wasn't sure if I wanted Trowa to stick around as a buffer zone or not while something happened. With a one-shouldered shrug, he let me know he'd had nothing to do with this scheme.
I grit my teeth and consciously redirected my ire. "I don't know why he'd even bother trying to act casual when he was just going to walk out of the room saying that."
Another shrug told me Trowa wasn't going to try and figure it out. He glanced at his watch. "It's a little early yet to be arranging for dinner. Why don't I just stay for a little while and make sure you kids don't tear each other's throats out?"
"Hn." A prickly feeling danced down my spine, and I turned to see Duo finally looking my way. I met that fire evenly, waiting for it to erupt.
Sure enough, it did, but in Trowa's direction. "How can you just sit there and chat so casually?"
"What would you prefer I do? Nothing's changed from this morning, after all."
"Nothing's--?" He glared at Trowa as if we were cahoots with each other.
Before Duo could really explode, I cut in. While Trowa could be quite the calming influence at times, he was clearly not what Duo needed. "Trowa, maybe you should leave for a little while, before your throat gets torn out?"
He raised an eyebrow at me, but dipped his head in acquiescence. "I'll be outside, then, ready to tackle anyone that leaves this room without Quatre's permission."
Duo and I watched each other steadily as Trowa gathered a few files and left the office for the room outside. Our battle of wills continued for a few seconds after he had gone, and finally I decided to start things off, jumping off of what Duo had presumably been about to say. "So what has changed from this morning?"
A muscle in his jaw twitched. "Okay. I'll concede to your stupid little point. Yeah, you're still the same bastard you were this morning. Everything that's in there now was in there then. But that doesn't change the fact that you've been lying to me for five fucking years."
"Would it piss you off if I pointed out that at no time have I ever said, Zero is dead, and he's most certainly not living inside my head?"
Good thing I didn't, then. "I explained to you already why I never said anything. I didn't think it was worth mentioning."
"Not. Worth. Mentioning?!" So much for whatever fragile calm Wufei had managed to pound into his head while I was out. "Okay, maybe in your tripped out little bubble, finding out that your boyfriend's got this whole other... thing living inside his head doesn't mean anything, but in my world, the world otherwise known as reality? Yeah, it matters!"
"Zero's not a 'thing', Duo. So long as you continue to demonize him--"
"So long as you insist on calling it a 'him', we're going to have a problem!"
"It's just a pronoun, Duo. It doesn't mean anything. Of course I realize that Zero isn't a living, masculine entity in any conventional sense, but he's got a personality, and it's definitely not feminine, and somewhere along the line, it just seemed wrong to think of him as an 'it'."
"A personality," he ground out.
"Yeah, he's an aggressive son of a bitch that likes to say 'I told you so.' And he has a disdain for irrational behavior and a drive for perfection. It's a personality."
"Well, hell, no wonder you like it so much. The two of you sound perfect for each other!"
I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be an insult or not, but judging by the way it had been hissed, I would assume it was. "Compatibility isn't determined by similarity."
He stared at me. "Let me rephrase: you sound like each other! Fucking hell, Yuy, is that even -you- talking?"
"You've known me to be a son of a bitch for ten years now, Duo. Don't even start trying to pin this on Zero. He doesn't deserve that." I didn't deserve that.
Duo's expression turned to one of disbelief. "Would you listen to yourself, Yuy? Get a grip!"
"How is my recognizing his 'personality' any worse than your continual insistence that he's the devil in disguise? We're both anthropomorphizing it!"
His hand thumped loudly on the table. "There's a huge difference between spawn of the devil and cuddly little puppy!"
"Cuddly little puppies may be sons of bitches, but I don't think they care about the differences between rational and irrational."
I don't want to know what would have happened if there hadn't been the length of a table between the two of us.
When we didn't answer, Trowa did. "Between Duo yelling something about perverted threesomes, and Heero shouting something about radioactive spiders, I think so."
His smile turned into a chiding frown. "Radioactive spiders, Heero?"
I guess the perverted threesome thing was easier to figure out when taken out of context. Duo's concerns were entirely unfounded, though. Zero quite happily stayed out of my love life, other than with his attempts to persuade me not to have one at all. "I was asking if things would be the same if I'd been bitten by a radioactive spider."
"Well, of course not, Heero. If you'd been bitten by a radioactive spider, you'd be able to spit webs out of your wrist."
"Actually," Trowa corrected him. "The webs were a chemical compound that came out of these mechanical shooters he invented and strapped to his wrists."
I rolled my eyes in annoyance. Quatre was well aware of the point I had been trying to make, and it had everything to do with trying to figure out whether Duo's anger had more to do with the continued existence of the Zero system inside my head than with me failing to tell him about it. At the time, I'd also mentioned something about alien symbiotes to make myself more clear, but fortunately Trowa hadn't overheard that part.
"How much hardware -do- you have in you?" Wufei said suddenly.
Well, at least it was a question no one else had asked yet. "I make it through the metal detectors at the front doors every day, don't I? I don't have huge chunks of cybernetics inside me. It's a nano-scale array."
"Zero fixed some things?" Trowa brought up.
I'd been over this with Sally already. "The nanos can go places and affect the balance of this or that and do things such as encourage cell growth. But again, I don't have any metallic reinforcement or things of that sort in my body." Such small structures may have been held temporarily in place to assist in the process, but they hadn't been permanent.
Trowa studied me curiously. "By choice?"
"Yes, by choice." Zero could do things to me if he wanted to, eat me up from the inside out and turn me into a cyborg of some sort if there was a necessity for it, but fortunately, we were on the same page about that. Neither of us wanted to go there and lose the humanity that was so precious to the both of us. "So, Quatre, you're cleared now?"
He nodded and went along with my change of subject, perhaps seeing that there was no progress to be made here at the moment. "HQ is ponderous in many ways, but at least they're not bad with fast-tracking their special ops agents."
"Do you have an agenda for our prisoners?"
We gained access to Kapasi's under-the-table records. He confirmed one previous sale and two interested parties other than Ershaghi. Like a good middleman, he had never inquired as to the intended purpose of the particles, but surely, he believed, they could not be used to produce weapons any time soon. The research was still theoretical, after all, and the conditions on Earth were not conducive to experimentation, and of course there was no one that would want to do such a terrible thing, was there?
He was tossed back into a holding cell, and Quatre went to work on Ershaghi, who proved to be a tougher nut to crack. It seemed he'd been in the business for quite some time, but even without his cooperation, we still had enough to put him away. We would just have to trace his ties the hard way.
While our second prisoner was being questioned, I went back to Kapasi's house with Trowa to gather the information we had been granted. We didn't want to risk someone cleaning out the evidence once they realized Kapasi had been compromised. It took less time to get there on a late Saturday evening than it did during the early afternoon. Much of the drive was passed in companionable silence. Some of it was not.
I had been cleared by Sally, but they still weren't letting me drive, so I was staring out the window being gloomy when Trowa spoke. "Why did you keep it?"
Ignoring him was a possibility, but the alternative was more time alone with my thoughts. At least, as alone as I ever got with my thoughts these days, but Zero apparently felt he had better things to do with his time right now than get caught up in this mess of human emotion. I didn't blame him. "What?"
"Zero. It sounds like, at no time did you ever think you should try and get 'cured'. Why is that?"
"Zero isn't a disease, Trowa," I answered tiredly. Though they had every right to their questions, I'd had enough of talking about this. Nevertheless, it was better to have their questions out in the open, rather than having them simmer unattended in the background. And hopefully, they'd run out of questions soon.
He barely spared me a sidelong glance. "All the same, at some point, you must have decided that it was better having Zero inside your head than not. Why?"
I shifted in my seat, cradling my head against the sling of my seat belt as the car hit a bump that made the window an unappealing surface to rest upon. "You know... I'm a little surprised that no one has suggested that yet. That I be 'cured', or that I 'get help'." The significant silence that greeted me communicated much, and I grimaced. "No one to my face, at least. Who-- Never mind. I don't want to know." Considering my options, I really, really did not want to know.
His silence stretched a bit further before he half-answered my unfinished question. "Maybe it's just obvious that you fully intend to keep Zero around."
And now finally someone wanted to know why. I had never once considered it. When I'd woken, I hadn't blinked twice at Zero still being there. It had felt like... the way things were supposed to be. Maybe a little of that was bleeding off of Zero, who had, even in the early stages of its development, always had a faintly smug satisfaction from accomplishing its primary objective.
But most of it was mine, I was sure. Even before it happened, I had had a strange affinity for the system. And Duo had found it almost as creepy then as he did now. But I kept going, despite the opinions of the others. It hadn't been entirely about saving the world from the effects of a Zero unleashed. It had been about saving Zero, too. I didn't want to see the system misused or abused. I didn't want Une associating the system with that misuse and then destroying it because of the excesses of a few fools. When Zero had text messaged his coordinates to me, I had dashed off to his rescue, with telling my teammates a mere afterthought, and one dismissed easily enough.
I thought back to that day, that afternoon, and tried to recapture that impulse. It had just felt right that Zero's fate would be decided by me and whomever my unknown nemesis was. Quatre had used the system just as much as I had during the war, and Zechs had adapted its variant to his own purposes, but I felt proprietary toward it, even more than I did toward Wing. Because it had been tailored to my specifications?
Because it was so misunderstood? I stifled a dark chuckle. No wonder Duo thought I was off my rocker.
"Personal reasons," I finally murmured in response to Trowa's question. "Just... personal reasons."
It was an answer I knew he would accept. He was good like that. But there were other lines of questioning to be pursued with his quiet grace. "Was it... lonely inside your head? Before?"
I tilted my head in his direction, the closest I would get to outright staring at him. I thought briefly about telling him something reassuring, but it was an honest question that deserved an honest answer. "Not really. There were usually too many things going on to have the time to feel lonely. And then when there weren't so many things going on... that's about when the world got really big all of a sudden. I guess... some of those things crept in and filled the void. But maybe, once in a while... a little."
"Now that Zero's there?"
"'Alone' and 'lonely' are two different things."
"Ah." Another kilometer passed in quiet contemplation before he spoke again. "You don't find it... invasive? Of your privacy?"
I couldn't help the faint snort that escaped me. "Not like Zero's going to go blabbing my secrets out to someone." I sobered after that. "But... you get used to it, I guess. Most of the time, he's just a buzz in the back of my head. And there are limits. We have ground rules. He doesn't accomplish anything by pissing me off, so he respects my boundaries." More or less.
"Is that... mutual?"
"Sort of." I had access to some of Zero's data, but just as there were silly human things going on inside my head that he wouldn't be able to understand, there were also things going on inside his processors that I wouldn't be able to understand. "Being an illogical human, I have a lot more boundaries than he does."
Zero generally wanted me to have that information available to me. Not counting the time we had fought against each other, when the system had first tried to gain a foothold in my mind back at Olin base, Zero hadn't withheld or hidden any data from me. Not that I knew of. On the heels of that thought, Zero assured me he hadn't, and he never lied to me. I couldn't make good decisions if I didn't have complete and correct knowledge about the situation. It was one of the reasons why Zero seemed sometimes so zealous about forcing its users into seeing the raw and painful truths hidden within their hearts. Which was one of the reasons why I preferred to do my soul-searching on my own terms, before Zero decided to help me along with it. I certainly had great motivation. His enthusiasm didn't always guarantee the proper results.
::I cannot force a human into understanding that which I do not.::
::I know. I'm not blaming you for that.:: Zero could provoke a person, set him up in an imaginary scenario that could strip away disillusions and complications -- Zero had unfortunately learned that stress was a good tool -- and then respond to the user's reactions, but he could not read a man's heart and hand over the answers. It was up to the user to learn from what he had seen, and man could be quite the recalcitrant beast sometimes. ::You do your best with what you have.::
And how little it is, Zero seemed to grumble, but maybe I really was out of my mind. I hadn't lied to Duo about Zero's 'personality', but I'd admit that it was possible I went a little too far with it sometimes, ascribing all too human traits to a collection of bits. Zero rarely objected unless he felt I was too far off-base. Maybe he knew how these little things helped keep me sane, like the way I insisted he 'talk' to me instead of just throw thought pulses at me. That was how I kept things distinct. But maybe the commentary was really composed of my own thoughts, borrowing Zero's voice, which in turn borrowed my own, which was a circle no human mind should have to contemplate. Maybe I had to think of Zero as a human-like entity because the idea of a mere computer sitting inside my head was just too creepy, too... inhuman.
"What did you see, Trowa?" I asked suddenly, one thought leading to another. "When you were with Zero."
He stayed quiet for a long time before he answered with a carefully mild tone. "That's a personal question."
I wasn't really interested in the details. "It's been so long now since my first time that... I barely remember it anymore." It wasn't just time that had dulled the details. I'd had five years of interfacing with the system in an entirely different way. "I remember it didn't go smoothly. I know how it probably went. But I don't remember anymore."
"Zero can't tell you?"
"The data from that time was lost." Left behind on Olin base and then destroyed, if it had even managed to survive the fall over Barton's headquarters at all. Most of the data from before was gone, which was why the Zero currently residing in my head was based on a whole different database of experiences entirely. Maybe it would have been better if I had renamed the system 'Joe' or something so there could be no confusion. 'Sparky' was a possibility. "We're always talking about two different systems, the rest of the world and I."
"Could Zero be sterilizing your memories?"
"There wouldn't be any benefit to that."
He considered that for a moment, then rephrased. "Can Zero sterilize your memories?"
"...You don't fear a loss of self?"
"...There is no loss of self. There is just a new self." Memories surfaced from my brief chat with Zamora just before he died. Some unpleasant parallels were drawn. "I don't want to argue the details about how much self is self, but do consider this: Zero is just hardware and software in the end. It can't emulate full humanity. It's far too complex. And I'd like to think I've gained enough... 'color' in my life that no one can mistake me for a computer."
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST