- 10 -

Thirty-six hours later, we received an incoming call, one of our scheduled contacts with our other team members.  Since I was closest to the vidphone at the time, I verified the codes, then activated the device.  Duo's face showed up on the other end of the line.  In the background, Wufei was shuffling through files.

"Heero," Duo greeted tersely.

They must have found something.  Something good, I hoped.  Searching his face, I saw no signs of illness.  "Duo.   Anything new?"

I could almost see him organizing his thoughts for a moment before beginning.  "It's been difficult getting information out of people sick and unconscious, but we've managed to figure out that a few key people were claiming that they had evidence proving that Meridian had some secret projects going on, things they were flying underneath the radar of various regulatory committees."

"What sorts of things?"

"Still working on that, but I thought maybe some of the testing that's been stopped pending the bills in the senate?  Or they might be conducting drug trials and experiments and stuff on illegally contracted subjects.  Human testing, even."

"That would be consistent with what we've been finding on our end.  We've been fishing through their records, too, starting with the scandal four years ago.  Things aren't adding up like they should."  Things were beginning to click.  The misdirected funding was going into their little side projects, off the book.   Meridian had been very cooperative when it came to light.  It would have had to cut its losses by firing the accountant before the investigation figured out where the money was really going.

"Seems so.  Looks like this recent stuff is the result of a long-term project.  If they finally got the dirt on these programs, we'd have motive for Meridian to shut them up before they went public.  Unfortunately, the paperwork seems to have been 'misplaced' in all the confusion around here, but luckily, I guess, all the stuff they found was in public records, so we should be able to follow their footsteps and reconstruct their case.  It'll take time, though."

"We've been doing a lot of research on their infectious disease department.  We think it's possible they'd have the resources to pull off the deliberate infection of an entire population, just from samples they're working with.  While this seems a pretty good way to go to try and avoid detection, there is the question of why they would have chosen this method of attack.  They could just have easily hired someone to go in and destroy their evidence or take out just the group's advocate."

"Who would think twice about the infection of a group that's always resisted inoculations?  It'd be their own fault, after all," he said disgustedly.  "What's annoying me is that, other than the fact that the alleged attack on Meridian involved the Zero system, we have nothing tying the system into any of this.  If it weren't for your findings, for all we know, we could be chasing down some completely unrelated case.  A good case, to be sure, but nothing that'll get us any closer to Zero."

Life had been easier six years ago.  We wouldn't have had to look for evidence enough to justify warrants and investigation.  Procedure had been created to fit the situation.  Laws had been mere inconveniences.  We could have just broken into Meridian systems, snuck into the building, monitored their communications, stolen classified materials, infiltrated their staff, and generally done whatever we needed to do to find out once and for all whether Meridian had anything to do with Zero's disappearance.  Instead, now we were stuck on the outside, going through things they had chosen to let the public see, or perhaps things they had accidentally let slip into the public's grasp, and all the while on the inside, perhaps their nefarious plans were creeping along.  Whoever had taken Zero wasn't going to wait around for us to catch up.  Every day, every hour brought our opponents closer to understanding it, and all we could do was sift through the paper trail.

Duo's attention was caught by a man entering their temporary office.  It was one of the medical personnel by the looks of him.  He came in waving a sheaf of papers vigorously and calling Duo's name.  Duo excused himself with a mutter to attend to the matter, and Wufei took his place.  "Six more people have died," he informed me without preamble.

The situation over there was grim.  There would be no more Condasan community after this.  If Meridian was behind this, they would pay dearly.  "How's Duo?"

Wufei glanced over to his partner.  I looked, too, even though he was off-screen.  I couldn't see him, but I could hear him speaking to the doctor.  "Still okay.  Saleroso is probably over there telling him he's good to go.  Too bad the others haven't been quite so lucky.  They've traced the virus to a possible cause in the water supply..."  He went on to give us the rest of the gory details.  As we found out more about the situation, we could hear Duo's conversation with Saleroso growing louder in the background.  The scientist was excited about something.  Wufei seemed to be trying to brief us and listen in to their conversation at the same time, and finally he gave up all pretenses and left us hanging as he turned to catch the exchange.

I had to listen very carefully to pick up the details.  The doctor was going on about blood samples and 7G10 binding sites and plasmodium vectors when he cut off with a squeak.  From the way Duo's voice was raised, I guessed he had gotten into the doctor's personal space somehow.  "What do you mean, it responds to the G10 antibodies!?"

The next words spoken were softer than I could hear, but I could still see Wufei's eyes widen.  He murmured something beneath his breath, and it looked like a curse.

"Wufei," I said intently.  "What's happening?  What have they found?"

He didn't answer, instead leaving the field of view altogether, presumably to join Duo in harassing the doctor for details.  That left me staring at an infuriatingly uninformative wall.  Resisting the urge to shout after them, I left them to do their job and concentrated on eavesdropping, but they'd moved or had started speaking more softly because I could only hear about a third of what was being said, a good deal of which was expletive on Duo's part.

Finally, I saw Duo march across the screen.  He looked furious.  I was about to call out to him when he kept right on going off the other edge of the screen, Saleroso in tow.  The doctor looked as if he would have much preferred it if someone else had been the messenger.  Wufei trailed after him, but I refused to let him go as easily as I had the others.  "Chang!" I nearly barked out.  "Report."

He stopped in front of the camera, but didn't look at us until the door had shut with a loud thud behind our comrade.  "The doctors have found something."

"We gathered as much," I said dryly.  "Care to elaborate?"

Two distracted seconds later, he had his professional face back on.  "The virus was engineered."

Damn.  If it had been engineered, then it was inescapable that its release had been deliberate and malicious.  We'd hoped that wasn't the case, but we hadn't really expected it.  "That's what made Duo so angry?"

He let out a slow breath.  "No... He's angry because the virus was engineered to contain one of the genetic markers for a particularly nasty strain of L2 plague."

I hissed in sympathy.  "Yeah, that would do it."

He snorted before continuing.  "They did blood tests on Maxwell to screen him for infection.  After missing it the first time, they found that he had indeed been infected, but the virus had been neutralized before it became a threat."

"He already had the antibodies for it," I guessed, the answer coming to me with a grim certainty.  I hadn't even needed Zero to come to that conclusion.

"Yes," Wufei confirmed, an eyebrow rising.  "Saleroso was asking him about his medical history just now.  It turns out that Duo grew up in a sector hard hit by the infection."

"Yes, he's... mentioned that before."  Only in more graphic terms.  I somehow doubted that he had just informed his two listeners that he'd grown up on the streets, that he'd cared for actual plague victims, that he'd never been inoculated.  I remembered him whispering it all to me in a few concise sentences during one of our moments of odd intimacy.  It didn't strike me as something he shared often.

Wufei more than raised an eyebrow at me then, probably wondering when or why Duo might have mentioned such a thing to me of all people, the person he hadn't seen for five years, and the person at whom he was currently miffed.  I did not enlighten him.  "Since a local strain was used as the vector, they probably never would have noticed the small splice of foreign material.  It's highly unlikely that the virus managed to evolve the exact same sequence independently of the L2 strain.  Unfortunately, the knowledge will help them understand, but they doubt they'll be able to do much useful with it.  There isn't the time to work on a cure, and then produce enough of it for the entire community.  The L2 plagues are notoriously nasty to work with."

Quatre came up beside me to contribute, leaving Trowa to my other side.  They'd both been listening in from their desks.   "No, but we can use the information to find those responsible for their deaths.  The water supply, you were saying?"

"Whomever we're up against is smart," he answered sourly.   "It's entirely possible that the infected material got there naturally.  It's also entirely possible that someone dropped it in there upriver, knowing the uptake system would catch it here.  No one would have seen a thing."

I found myself wondering whether Zero had been responsible for the suggestion, or mere human ingenuity applied to vile pursuits.   Somehow, I thought the latter.  In fact, I almost hoped for it.  Zero wouldn't have made such propositions unless there was a mind focused enough behind it to use it, and so long as there was no such person, we were relatively safe from the most dire scenarios.   "Meridian has strong L2 research interests."

"Meridian probably does a lot of gene splicing," Trowa added.

Quatre had another 'coincidence' to add to the growing list.  "Meridian had reason to take them out."

"I'm not so certain why they would have done it this way, though," I mused aloud.  It still bothered me, despite Duo's explanation that it had been a good, discreet choice.  "First of all, why take out the entire community?  There were smaller scale ways of eliminating the threat.  And secondly, why use a biological attack?  Wouldn't that identify them rather obviously?"

"They had the resources for it," Wufei theorized.  "They could do it in-house easily.  And it would have been difficult to detect, both as an attack, and as an engineered product."

"Yes, but..."  A gut feeling was creeping up on me, nudging me towards thinking that there was something more behind their choice.  On the counterargument, my brain was reminding me that maybe the choice had seemed natural to them.  Just because I would have chosen something less insidious and indiscriminate, didn't mean that they would have.  Perhaps I was just getting a chill from realizing that this could be no accident, unlike the 'attack' on Meridian.   It was no mistake that almost the entire community had been taken out.  The intent had to have been clear.

I had a sudden flash of insight, and I interrupted the others' discussion to share it.  "Could it have been a test?  Like the accident with Meridian's computers, only not an accident."

"That... sounds like a reasonable next step," Quatre said uneasily.

Trowa pursued the thought to its logical end.  "If this was a test run, it sounds like they're building up to something bigger than this.  I don't think I want to find out what that might be."

I liked it no more than he, but that wouldn't be enough to remove it from the list of possibilities.  "We don't have anyone on a list of targets for them."

"And I can't think of where we would start," Quatre said.   "We have no motives for them yet."

"Forget motive," I cut in irritably.  "We have enough circumstantial evidence against them.  Let's press Une into allowing us to search the damn place."

Quatre deliberated for a second, then nodded firmly.  "Yes.  It's time we stopped doing recon and got on with things.   Wufei, you and Duo have found all you're likely to find there.  The GSDC can take care of the rest.  Prepare to leave.  Get back here as soon as Duo's done blowing off his steam.  The rest of us will brief the general and push for a course of action."

Our efforts were unexpectedly unfruitful.  Once again, the drawbacks of living in a civilized society.  We made our case with Une, presenting to her all of our findings to date.  She had been kept apprised of our progress as we investigated the case, but our most recent developments were the most significant.  She agreed with us that all of the leads were pointing towards Meridian, and had been for a couple of days.

She had not been idle during all that time.  A few discreet inquiries had been made, and we found our hands tied by red tape and an overcautious government.  Meridian was a very large, very popular company.  They had allies on the council, those that supported its causes when it lobbied before the senate.  It was a campaign contributor.  It was the leading developer of life-saving medical equipment.  It ran, funded, or supported numerous socially beneficial health programs throughout the union.  Those in the know were familiar with the company as a kind one, whose stance during the genetic engineering debate on the senate floor had included an endearing catchphrase on how it wasn't genes that made a human, but heart.   Earnest reparations had been made to stockholders when their accounting inconsistencies had been brought to light.

In short, we couldn't move against Meridian if all we had was circumstantial evidence.  The rather obvious irony was that we needed to be able to move against them in order to collect the evidence they needed.

We told Duo and Wufei when they returned.  They were predictably... disgruntled.  They decided to take a crack at Une in case they could come up with something that we had missed, and though Une was bombarded with graphic descriptions of the suffering of the Condasans, among other things, she remained fixed in her stance.   She liked the bureaucracy no more than we did, but although she might have wished it otherwise, the current position of Meridian Biotechnologies in the world order was too important and too high profile to allow us to pursue the case as we pleased.

Tempers were short.  It felt surprisingly like the time the colonies had turned their backs on us during the war.  We knew what we needed to do, and yet we were not being allowed to do it.  In the end, however, we had found other ways to pursue our callings.   We would do so again.

Afternoon rolled into evening.  Over a dinner where we ate little, all we could decide was that we would talk to Meridian again the next day and try to shake loose something incriminating under the guise of assisting.  That left us the rest of the night to brood over our alternatives.

Some of us were all too good at brooding.  I took to the gym on the premises, thinking that perhaps occupying my body would keep my mind from being overoccupied by things about which I could do nothing.  In recent days, I hadn't been taking care of my body as I ought to have been.  The light exercises I did in the morning helped me get going, but they weren't quite enough to sustain me for the day.  The less I rested, the less I paid attention to my diet, the less I slept, the more my body protested.  It demanded routine maintenance in order to keep running at optimal efficiency.

I found that I was not alone.  I did my stretches, I did my lifting, I swam my laps, and when I was on my way out again, I saw the light on in the gym that had just previously been dark and empty.   The angry, echoing thuds made me sneak the door open enough to take a peek inside.  Somehow, I wasn't surprised to see the lone ball player had a long braid trailing down his back.  He dribbled the ball with unnecessary force, channeling his frustration into the action.  In a smooth move, he swooped the ball up and threw it against the backboard, once, twice, each time with enough force and accuracy that it rebounded right back into his hands.  The second time he caught it, he held it, then spun it around in his hands a few times.

My hand rose.  So did his.  He had the ball positioned for a shot when my knuckles made contact with the wood of the door.  He whirled around to find the intruder.  His eyes homed in on me, and his ball rattled against the rim, hesitated, then fell in with a soft swish.

We looked at each other for a few seconds before I offered a greeting.  "Hey."

His lips returned the favor, though I did not hear his word stir the air.  I walked into the large room, and let the door creak shut behind me.  His ball rolled towards me slowly as if I had called it, and when it got close enough, I took a step to the side to retrieve it.  Duo looked at me silently as I did so, and maintained his silence as I tossed him the ball, then closed the distance between us to a few meters.  "Long night, eh?"

His lips thinned, furthering his silence for another three seconds before he spoke.  "You're making small talk again."

It took me a second to recall why there had been an 'again' tacked on to the end; he had said something similar after I had emerged from my session with Brisbois.  As before, the statement neared accusation in its aggressive neutrality.  Why?  And what was the proper response?  "Sorry?" I tried.

He snorted away my apology, shortly thereafter throwing me the ball.  Though unprepared, I caught it, studying him to get some feel for his intent.  He studied me in return.  I got the impression it was a test.  Wasting little time on trying to divine the right answer, I went with my first, natural response and shot the ball.  It went cleanly through the hoop, bounced several times, and slowly rolled a couple of meters before coming to a halt.  Neither of us picked it up.

"Where did you learn that?" he asked.

How to shoot a ball?  No, not that.  "People talked to me.  I learnt to talk back.  And since I learnt that people get unnerved by a person getting right to the point, I learnt to talk first."

"So there was a point to this?"

I shrugged.  It hadn't been an important point.  "I didn't get the chance to ask you today how..."  I trailed off, wielding some of the discretion I had learned.  Sometimes people didn't get unnerved by the point; sometimes, they got downright testy.  He raised an expectant eyebrow at me, but I wasn't certain how I wanted to finish the sentence.  I finally decided on something vague and neutral.  " your trip was."

He continued to level an odd look at me.  "You know how it went.  You were briefed."

"On the details of the case, yes.  Not on..."  I swerved away from another landmine.  It wasn't a wise move to ask Duo Maxwell how he felt.  " it was.  For you."

"What did you want to hear?  It wasn't a vacation, you know.  I'm not going to tell you I enjoyed myself, had a great time.  Didn't bring back any pictures.  Don't have a tan."  He crossed his arms over his chest, tapping his elbow on one side with his fingers from the other.

I shook my head impatiently, though whether from my inability to approach the subject with the attitude I wanted, or from his use of sarcasm to obscure the point, I didn't know.  "I don't mean that.  I mean... about the Condasans."

"Well, I'm sure they weren't having a ball, either."

I suppressed my flinch at his acidic tone.  "Why does this have to be so hard, Duo?"  He knew exactly what I was talking about, but he refused to show it, choosing instead to tilt his head at me as if asking for clarification.  Fine.  I would give it to him.  We'd see if that was what he really wanted.  "Why can't we just talk freely?  We used to.  I don't even know what's going on between us half the time.  You won't tell me."

"We used to?" he repeated with a sense of disbelief.  "We were never all that open with each other, Heero."

"Then why do I know that you once watched a lot of people die of sickness?  Why do I know that it drove you crazy, not being able to do anything about it?  Why do I know that you felt guilty about not getting sick along with everyone else?"  His expression got progressively darker as I enumerated the things I knew from his own lips.  Those nights, a little less dark and cold and lonely than all the rest, I would never forget.  "Am I wrong for thinking that you might be feeling all those things again this time around?  Am I wrong to offer to listen again?  If you don't want to take me up on that offer, that's fine.  You don't have to.  You never had to.  But you don't have to reject it in such spectacular fashion.  A simple non-answer will suffice."

He was doing it again.  There were so many things swimming just beneath his surface, and he wasn't letting any of them out.  I felt denied.  I knew I didn't have a right to his inner thoughts, that being allowed a glimpse of them was a privilege not to be taken for granted, but that didn't stop the fact that I had lost that privilege from gnawing on me.

I made a choice years ago.  If this was one of the consequences, then... I would just have to accept that.  "Look, I just wanted to know..."  No, this wasn't about knowing, not mere knowledge.  It hadn't been idle curiosity that had motivated me to start this.  "I just wanted to offer.  To let you know that... that I care, and I'm willing to do what I can, if you need it.   Obviously, that regard isn't returned, but that doesn't change things on this end.  Offer stands."

I got no response.  With a pang of something close to regret, I turned to leave.  His voice stopped me.  "Five years, Heero.  Where was your offer for five years?"

A valid question.  I wondered with some concern if he was just asking, or if he had needed it, and I had let him down.  It seemed rather pointless to argue theoreticals.  If our paths had managed to cross one day, yes, the offer would have stood, but just how much did that mean when I had seen to it that our paths would not so easily cross?  "I guess... it just got subsumed by my own needs."

"And wasn't that a rather spectacular rejection of my own offer?"

His simple words hit my back right between my shoulderblades.  I desperately fell back on my one true defense.  How many more ways could I ask for clarification on the point?  How could I phrase it without repeating that they had all signed off on my departure?  "It wasn't spectacular.  We talked, before I left.  It was an explanation, a rather tame conversation, all things considered.  When did it turn into a slap in the face?"

"When you came back."

I didn't understand how my actions now could reach back in time to alter my actions of five years ago.  "So my return was a bad thing?"

The short silence before he spoke felt like a painful eternity.  "No... Just the five years in between."

I was tired of this.  I didn't want to push the issue in light of the more important things currently going on, but this was wearing me thin.  Turning around, I confronted him face to face.  His posture hadn't changed much.  "Make up your mind, Duo.  You seem to be saying that you were fine with the five years while they were going on, but they turned bad when I came back, only you also seem to be saying that my coming back wasn't a bad thing, just the five years.  Unless now you're unhappy that you were happy with the five years, or you're glad I came back and ruined the five years or..."  Great, now I was just confusing myself.  "Either the five years were bad, or the return was bad, or maybe they were both bad, but just make up your mind and stick with it.  It's unfair that you keep taking it out on me whenever you change your mind."

I think he got that all that was an exhausted plea rather than a reproachful demand.  If he had thought the latter, he probably wouldn't have been standing there with a conflicted, contemplative look on his face.  Or maybe that wasn't what it was.  I could never tell.  One thing I knew for certain was that his mood had just shifted, even if I never had any idea what it had just shifted to.  "Maybe it is," he offered with a quiet shrug.  "Maybe things change.  You've--"

"--changed," I finished, refraining from adding the bitter roll of the eyes that I wanted to.  It was quickly making its way up through the ranks of my list of things I really didn't like hearing, nestling itself right under number one, the accusation of perfection.  "Everyone keeps saying so, so it must be true."

"You don't see it?"

"I don't see it.  I'm still who I was.  This is just a different situation now.  People act differently in different situations."

"Maybe," he said again.  "You sure are the same old stubborn son of a bitch you always were.  So maybe you're the same, but you act different.  And not in a bad way.  I think I wouldn't be so pissed if you didn't come back so good."

That... didn't quite compute in my head.  Something was going to get short-circuited very soon.  "Didn't you just say the other day that you'd be pissed if I didn't come back...  No, you said you'd be more pissed if I hadn't come back changed.  So you're glad I changed... but not glad it was for the better?  ...Is that just one of those things I shouldn't try to understand?"  It wouldn't be the first time I'd just accepted something about him, about us.  The relevant details didn't always make sense.  It was like one of those stereographs.  Viewed head on, the image was gibberish, but if I just let my eyes unfocus and stopped thinking about it so hard, a stunning, unexpected picture would jump out.

He chuckled softly, surprising me.  "Maybe.  I'm not so sure I understand yet, myself."

Glad I wasn't the only one that was confused.  If he was, I had every right to be.  Was that why he couldn't decide how he wanted to act towards me?  I really hoped there was a bigger picture hiding somewhere in here, or else I was going to go cross-eyed looking for it.  "Feel free to let me know if you do."

"Hm.  Maybe."  He went to pick up the neglected basketball.  It was a sign that this round was over.

That was a lot of maybes.  Well, yet again, nothing between us had been settled, but at least we weren't parting on a sour note.  Where was the pattern in this madness between us?  We always started out conversational, then he sniped at me a few times, then I asked him why, and then he gave me no clear answers, and we parted with a vague, unspoken, extremely unsatisfactory agreement to disagree.  As endings went, this one was actually fairly positive.   Inconclusive, but positive.

As I walked towards the exit, he dribbled the ball three times, paused, then another three.  I thought of waltzes, and the necessity in breaking patterns.  I turned around with my hand on the pushbar to the door.  "Hey."

"Hm?"  He looked at me, twirling the ball around in his hands.

"Your trip.  How was it?"

His hands stilled, and he hesitated, judging me.  I remembered the look from the first time I had asked such a question, years ago.  He was having difficulty believing that I actually cared, or perhaps that I could be trusted with the answer.   Reasonable doubts, I suppose.  I hadn't shown interest in his doings for five years, so why would I start now?  But I'd always cared, just as I also always assumed he had others that cared just as much as I.  The four of them were supposed to have supported each other.  Everything that I'd heard indicated that they had been.

His gaze dropped to the ball in his hands, the silence lingering for seconds more before he, too, decided to break the pattern.   "Rough."

I'd thought so.  I also wasn't surprised that that was all he offered.  It was all he really needed to say, anyway.  "And this business about Meridian?"

He looked up again with jaded eyes.  "Tough.  Figures, you know?"

"It shouldn't."

"But it does."

"I know."  I sighed.  If we took Meridian down, there'd be a large gap left in the service sector of the L2 cluster.  Hopefully, the scoundrels were limited to just a few individuals, rather than the conspiracy being widespread company policy, but that was just a hope.  Hopes weren't known to fare too well in L2.  I let my face express some sympathy before I let the matter drop.   "Good night, Duo."

Even the return of such an innocent phrase required thought on his part, but he echoed the sentiment eventually and let me go.

This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew at This has been an entirely automated message.

last modified : 12/30/2005 14:41:38 PST