- 22 -

Duo's sour mood did little to dampen my own.  Although I would not have labeled it 'high-spirited', I was definitely re-energized now that we were getting somewhere.  Duo, in an aside to Wufei, commented that I was still working like a man possessed, only at least today I was a man possessed productively.  I smiled to myself and continued with the mission planning.

We called the power company for the area and sweet-talked them into confirming that there were a few discrepancies in the reports, though none major enough for them to have taken action.  That was enough evidence for us to put together our team and move out.

The old Federation base where Zamora used to work was located about an hour out from Brussels, an hour and a half from Luxembourg.  Towards the end of the one-year war, OZ had cut funding to the base, and all of the staff suddenly found they had other places to be.  It had been abandoned, then swept out by the beginnings of the Preventers, and then shut down for good.  Since it was a small base, it hadn't gotten as much attention as the larger bases had, but eventually the government would have gotten around to finding a better use for the land.

Until then, however, it seemed Zamora would be safe there.  After the power problem had been taken care of, the former research facility would have provided him with ample room and setup to do as he pleased.  Though we still didn't know what he was up to, we were going to stop him.

We let Une know about this latest development, and then we took off, a backup army unnecessary this time as we anticipated only the one man as our opponent, if indeed he was there.  Should there prove to be more, we were confident we would be able to handle them anyway.  We had certainly done so in the past.

Olin was a stout facility, its gates and walls having withstood the years of neglect, despite the look of the earth barren of all but weeds.  We drove past the place once with scanners on the lookout for any EM fields, but found none, a good indication that there were no electronic security measures in effect outside.  We parked the van not far from the front gates and proceeded forward on foot.

There had been a lone security booth with a wooden arm to guard the entrance, but after the fledgling Preventers had cleared out the base, they had brought in additional fencing to close up the entrance and lock the facility from casual prying eyes.  Not being of that persuasion, it was nothing for us to scale the chicken wire fence and gain access to the grounds.  If we had taken the time to case the entire perimeter, we probably would have found a hole cut in the wires somewhere.

Though the reports had not indicated that the base had sported any extreme security measures such as land mines or gun turrets, nor would anyone have been able to install them in a short amount of time, we were still cautious in our approach, automatically falling back into old patterns of hand signals and formations.  As expected, we reached the main doors with no trouble.

There was an electronic locking device securing the door.   Since it was the Preventers that had installed it, we had the codes, but they were no longer recognized.  That was our first confirmation that someone had invaded the base.  Popping the panel out, Duo stripped a few wires and bypassed the code lock.  The door sprang open a few centimeters with an angry hiss, and after seeing what we could see through the thin crack, we pried the door the rest of the way open.

Flashlights to the floor, we could see footprints in the dust, and two lines.  They looked like wheel tracks.  Zero was being rolled in some sort of container, perhaps?  We followed them, mindful of tricks that may have been laid in our path.  There were security cameras scattered through the halls, but none of them seemed to be active.  When we ran across an array of beam emitters installed in a doorway, we took the time to raise enough dust in its path to see that they were not activated.

Though we found nothing more dangerous than locked doors and stale air, we continued to be thorough as we followed the trail in the dust.  It branched off on occasion, but there was a more heavily trafficked course we could follow that led on in one cohesive direction, first going downstairs to the underground level, then inwards towards the center of the base.

It took about half an hour of moving slowly through the network of hallways before we finally reached a section of the base that looked like it was currently inhabited.  The air was fresher.  We cast significant glances at each other.  Not long after, we came across a flickering overhead light.  It was the first in a chain of lights that seemed to point us in the right direction.

Made wary by the ease with which we had gotten in thus far, we were even more careful now that things seemed a little too obvious.  Creeping along, we all loosened our weapons in their holsters, Wufei and Duo even going so far as to pull them out and hold them at the ready.  The hum of the lights made itself known, gradually added to by the whirr of the ventilation systems, the quiet buzz of the air purifiers, and that feeling on the back of your neck that tells you something's about to happen.

We turned down a corridor with a large window in the wall that spilled light across our path.  On the far side of the window, we could see a reinforced door.  Some simple glances sent Trowa and Duo crawling to the other side beneath the view of the window while Wufei took a peek through the glass.  He nodded curtly, signaling to us with his fingers that the man within was alone and appeared ignorant of our presence.

Zero? I asked him.

He shrugged, moving his hands around his head.  Zamora had an interface on?

Duo inspected the locking mechanism on the door.  Frowning, he let us know that it had been tampered with.  Despite that, he pried off the paneling and got to work.

About half a minute in, we heard a click that had nothing to do with the door.  It was followed by the sound of small gears winding up.  We turned towards the wall opposite the window and saw a formerly inert camera had activated.

There was no cover, but we all twitched away from our positions anyway, prepared if something had been aimed at us, but nothing came.  A sinister red light was blinking at us, and then a speaker popped.  "Now what do we have here.... Ah, of course.  The infamous Gundam pilots."

We looked at each and came to the consensus that there was no point in trying to leave if he already knew we were there.   Presumably he had access to the base security system and could track us at will.  We didn't make it so easy as to stand in front of the window for him, though.

"You might as well stop trying to unlock the door.  You'll only damage the circuit."

Unfortunately for him, Duo liked a challenge.  With the tip of his tongue showing between his lips, he continued to sort through the wires.

I was surprised when I was called out.  "Heero Yuy.  I would like a word with you."

Casting a glance at Quatre, I received a nod in reply, so with a breath to ready myself, I stood and turned, eyes assessing the room for any threats before returning to Zamora.  He was on the far side of the research lab, scanners and circuitboards and various other pieces of machinery spanning that space between us.  As Wufei had indicated, Zamora had a helmet of sorts on, long wires attaching him to a system against the wall.  I assumed there were microphones somewhere around here so he could hear me.  "Let me in, then.  I'd be happy to join you for a spot of tea."  I wasn't certain whether or not I really wanted to step into his lair without the others to back me up.

"I think we'll be fine as things are."

My game plan was to stall and distract, unless he gave me some sort of opening.  While I kept him occupied, Duo could get the door opened, or Quatre could find another way into the room.  "Alright, then.  What do you want?"

He stared at me for a few seconds, a little too steadily, and I got the uncanny feeling that Zero was sizing me up through his eyes.  "So you're Heero Yuy, huh?  Hmpf.  I thought you'd be taller."

"Why would you think that?"  He should have had all of my stats, given the information mining he had been doing on me.

"Zero thinks very highly of you."  It was almost a sneer, one of the ones that covered a thin admiration.

I shrugged.  I did not want his admiration.  "After all of the time I spent with it, it would almost have to think highly of me by definition.  Its data was calibrated to mine."

"And yet you expect so little of it.  You think it can have no judgments of its own, that it's a mere slave to your data?  Then you fail to see its potential."

I was getting a little sick of people telling me that.   Maybe it was arrogant of me to assume that I knew more than everyone else about Zero, but I had the most experience with it.  "Its potential is almost without limit... given the right user."

"Then you must not be the right user."  He had a face well suited to smirking.  "You never took Zero to the next level."

"What's your version of the next level?" I asked.  Trowa had rounded the corner on the far side to do some recon.   Concentrating on the image in the left corner of my field of view proved that Wufei had done the same, backtracking through halls we had already visited.

Zamora tapped the side of his headgear.  It was an entirely new design, less clunky than the model seen on board the Libra to command the army of mobile dolls.  That setup had included a virtual reality visor in order to cut down on the direct feedback that the user would have to receive from the system.  It was also quite different from the DNI bands I had used during our infiltration run, which were based on a standard model.  Instead, Zamora had invented something not dissimilar to a chain mail coif, a mesh skullcap that covered his head with a fine network of interface nodes.  "The user is limited when he's tied to the machine, to a chair and an interface that preempts all of his sensory input.  He's limited by Zero's perceived limitations.  Who was the fool who first decided that Zero could only work when applied to a specific application?"

Zero could be applied to many, many applications... but when he said 'specific', did he mean to imply a general use?  Was he not using the analytical engine for anything in particular right now?   I studied his setup more carefully.  His interface was connected to an open-air casing, Zero, its parts exposed for work.  The wires were especially long, though coiled and retractable.  Was their purpose mobility?  That the user might not be tied to a single place?

But usually, the user didn't care.  He would be plugged into the system for some purpose, to complete some task, generally one that needed to be done quickly and then applied in some immediate fashion involving the console at which the user sat.  I didn't need long wires to pilot a suit or surf a network.  If the calculations were intense, such as climate predictions, then I could leave the system running without my input.  Why would I want mobility?

Only if I was going to wander around a lot, using the system as I did.  What purpose would that serve?  Zamora had implied a general use.  Did he mean to have a person hooked up to the system at all times, for no particular purpose... other than the enhancement of man, a harmony of man and machine?  I remembered what I had concluded earlier about what Zero might do to achieve that goal.   "How long have you been using the interface?"

Zamora blinked, then laughed.  Through the speakers, it was a very tinny sound.  "Oh, very good, Heero Yuy.  Perhaps I was wrong about you.  You are a sharp one after all."  He walked over to one of the devices on the tables and started fiddling with it.  I couldn't tell what it was from where I stood.  "I have been connected to the system for almost twenty-four hours now."

Twenty-four hours?  Continuous use?  Remarkable.  The most time I had ever spent in the cockpit of Wing Zero had been eleven hours straight, and even then, I had turned off the input from Zero when I hadn't required it.  I didn't doubt the ability of the human mind to cope with the incredible speed of thought possible, so much as I questioned a need for that much constant processing power.  What was Zero doing for him?  What was there to analyze?

"Shit!" Duo cursed softly from the door, shaking his fingers.  His curse had been preceded by a spark and a buzz.

Zamora looked up from his device.  It was a measurement machine of some sort, I thought, though all of the displays were turned in the other direction.  "Did I not advise you to stop playing with the locking mechanism?" he chided, making it clear that it was no coincidence the lock had experienced a power surge.  "And while we're at it, you might as well call your comrades back.  They will find no entrance to this lab.  They have all been sealed as well."

If that was the case, then they would come back on their own soon enough.  Sparing a glance at Duo as he scowled at the door, I put my mind back on the conversation I was having with Zamora.   With him hooked up to the Zero system, I had little hope of distracting him now, though maybe, just maybe, something useful would come out it.  "In my experience, Zero has required a purpose to keep it focused, keep it from picking up on all the stray thoughts of its user.  Are you seeking input from Zero on absolutely everything, or have you found some way to refine Zero's input parameters?"

Zamora's eyes refocused on me, and now that I knew Zero was in there, looking out at me through his eyes, I had to wonder if it was evaluating my question carefully and thoroughly, extrapolating meaning from it beyond what any human would think reasonable.  "But is man ever at any time without purpose?  Though he might think he is, man has always had the most remarkable ability to delude himself."

There would be such lovely irony if he was the one deluding himself.  I went ahead and asked a question I probably knew the answer to.  "And what is your purpose now?"

"It ought to be every man's purpose to perfect himself, to constantly strive towards something higher."

"Admirable goals," I murmured.  Wufei had returned, conversing with Quatre in a quiet undertone.  Duo rounded the corner, following Trowa's path.  "Is this union with Zero the best way to achieve that?  Is it still the purpose of a 'man' at that point?"

"Man and machine in perfect harmony.  Mutualism at its finest.  If the man has the strength of mind to maintain his sense of self, of course.  If man is in control, despite what assistance he might have, then is he not still man?"

Mutualism?  That implied that Zero was getting something out of their union.  What was it?  A mind on Zero would not suffer so simple a thing as a slip of the tongue or a misunderstanding of vocabulary.  "How does one define his sense of self?  How does one determine just how greatly Zero is controlling him?  Could Zero not have imprinted this man with a new sense of self?  Don't most people use Zero, only to discover something new about themselves?"  Something metallic was set on the floor around the corner.   Wall paneling?  Ventilation grill?

"A new sense of self?  A true sense of self.   How many people do you know are actually truthful with themselves?  Zero strips away all of that to find what is truly within a person, and if that person can accept that truth and come to terms with it, then Zero will never be able to take it away from him."

Why was it I was always drawn into philosophical discussions with these sorts?  "But following this epiphany, what need does the user have of Zero anymore?"

Through the filter of the speakers, his bark of laughter sounded more like a harsh cough.  "Knowing who you are is important, yes, but mankind still has its limitations.  With Zero, he will be faster, stronger, wiser."

"And who would reap the benefits of it?  Would you propose a ruling elite?  Or a society where everyone was plugged in to the system?"

He waved his hand impatiently at me.  Why was it that people never thought about the ramifications of their actions?   "Not just plugged in to the system!  You're still being held back by the limitations of the current arrangement.  Imagine the possibilities if the system could be embedded within a person!"

"The entire thing?"  If he could wear the interface, but be freed of the wires... if he could go not just wireless, which would mean connecting to a remote system, but instead always have the system with him, then yes, I could imagine the possibilities... They were even more frightening than some of the possibilities with a limited Zero system in the wrong hands.

"Of course!  Why would you voluntarily eliminate the entirety of its power?  That was something those fools at Meridian never understood.  Without the direct interface, Zero still served their purpose, but it was handicapped, hobbled, a prince forced to do a slave's work.  Why waste it on such menial tasks when you could have the world at your fingertips?"  For someone currently on the Zero system, I had to admit, he had retained a remarkable amount of coherency when dealing with the outside world.

Duo came back around the corner, his dark clothes covered with wrinkles of dust.  He shook his head at Quatre before disappearing again.  Quatre followed suit with Wufei in tow, leaving me alone.  I trusted them to try and find a way into the lab while I mulled over what Zamora was saying.  A fully embedded system?  How?  Zero required special hardware to run.  Theoretically, I suppose, it was possible for the system to co-opt the human brain as its processor and memory storage unit... but I wouldn't make any guarantees as to what would be left of it after Zero took over, especially since there also had to be a way to hardwire Zero's algorithms.  It wouldn't be compatible with the operating system most people ran.

"What if that's not the best way to perfect yourself?" I asked him.  "What if perfection comes from being able to look inside of yourself, and find whatever it is you need within that one closed system?  Then it's you that's being perfected, not some combination of you and some other entity being used as a crutch."

I think trying to deal with that idea may have caused an assert somewhere.  He turned on my comrades instead, eyes turning towards the walls as if he could see them through it.  "I advised you to stop, didn't I?" he shouted, his words reverberating in the empty metal hallways.

Quatre yelped in answer.  "Son of a--!"  Someone on the other side smacked the wall in similar protest.

I stepped closer to the window, looking at Zamora intently.  "How much longer are you going to run your experiment?  Until you find a way to fully embed the system?"

His attention snapped back to me, a somewhat feverish expression on his face.  "I'm nearly there," he insisted, the gleam in his eye becoming manic.  He rushed over to another device and started pressing buttons.  "I have the prototypes done."

"You'll have to leave that lab eventually, Zamora.  Your system is useless if you're trapped inside a box.  You said it yourself: what sense is there in placing limitations upon yourself?  Open the doors, Zamora."

"No!"  The quaver in his voice was both encouraging and worrisome as he barely looked up from what he was doing to answer.  If I was pushing him over the edge of his ability to handle the system, it could go either way.  He could go mad on us, or he could capitulate.  "I can do this.  It's possible.  After I get the array up, it should easy to program them with what they need."

I tried to appeal directly to Zero.  "The system will be wasted on this application if no one accepts it.  It could be the most wonderful creation mankind has ever seen, and it will mean nothing if it never sees the light of day."  Surely Zero would be reasonable about this.

"There!"  He hit one final button in triumph, pulled out a tray that appeared empty to me, then ran over to the Zero mainframe.

"Oh, fuck this," Duo muttered irritably, suddenly at my side again.  He pulled out his gun, pushed me back with his free arm, and let loose into the window.  I jumped at that sound I hadn't heard for so long, but a piece of my brain was still functioning properly as it noted with admiration and some strange pride how closely grouped Duo's shots were.  It noted only as an afterthought that I could see the shot pattern because the glass hadn't shattered yet.

"Shit," Trowa said quite succinctly.  I agreed.  In hindsight, I realized that the door had been thickly reinforced, that the ventilation for the room was abnormally filtered and protected, and that some of the debris lying on the perimeter of the room looked suspiciously like blast shields.  Apparently Zamora had chosen a room in which weapons experiments used to be conducted.

Though we were caught off-guard, I found it interesting that Zamora was as well.  Perhaps Zero had been able to predict the traditional ways used to enter the room, but somehow had missed the alternative that Duo had chosen.  Honestly, it surprised me, too, though really, I should have thought of that since I was standing in front of the window.

Zamora recovered, his attention riveted to the device in which he had inserted the tray.  "Aha!" he shouted in triumph.  That could not bode well.

His excitement did not last long.  Soon after his exclamation, he slapped a hand to the side of his head, hunching over in what appeared to be pain.  "No!  What's happening?  Why isn't it wor--"  There was a loud speaker pop, and suddenly the audio transmission to the hallway was gone.  A spark arced across the surface of Zero's console.

"I don't suppose you have any explosives on you," Wufei asked Duo.

His gaze having been transfixed to the scene behind the bulletproof glass, Duo had to blink back to our side of things before answering with a grin.  "Never leave home without it."  He took a quick glance at the situation before deciding that the door would have to be a weakness he could exploit.  From pockets I hadn't noticed he had, he started pulling things out, but I could tell that they were separate components, and he would have to assemble things before we could use them.  Apparently he hadn't anticipated their necessity.

I just knew that we wouldn't get the door blasted open in time.  Zamora was saying something, a frantic look on his face, but the sound did not reach us.  Both his hands were clutched to his head as he tossed it back and forth, and then he seized up, body stiffening in pain before he fell over to the floor, small convulsions wracking his frame.  Zero calmly dropped sparks on him as if in tribute.

"Duo, hurry!" Quatre said with urgent command.

I shook my head, watching the blood paint a scarlet line from Zamora's nose to puddle beneath his cheek.  Smoke rose as incense at his grave from one of Zero's panels.  "I think it's too late."

"Well, we've gotta get this door open anyway," Duo muttered to himself, inserting his detonator into a small charge.  "Okay.  Clear?"

We retreated to a safe position around the corner, and he pressed the magic button, a loud boom going off in response.  That small charge had packed more punch than I had expected.  Did Duo routinely carry such explosives around in his pockets?

The door was largely undamaged, but the blast had taken out the circuitry next to it.  We forced the door open against the protest of servos and gears, and entered a room that smelled of dusty fire.  Knowing with an absolute certainty that Zamora was dead, that his fate was no less painful and permanent than Stewart's, I left the scientist to the others and headed towards the computer array that was still emitting the occasion spark.  I traced the cords with my eye, and when I found the one I wanted, I knelt down and unplugged the array from the wall.  Wisely reserving judgment until further evidence had been gathered, I suppressed that ache that welled up somewhere inside of me at the thought of Zero's demise.  That, truly, would be a waste.

The others eventually came to the same conclusion I had about Zamora.  Leaving him for the moment, we turned our attention to the rest of the lab.  Perhaps Zamora may have been able to stay in the lab for a few days more yet.  We found a stash of ration bars and other snacks in the corner.  Not far from it was a bucket he had apparently been using as a toilet, so unwilling had he been to unplug from the system.  We avoided that corner thereafter in favor of the technology strewn across the countertops.

I came back to squat next to Zamora's body, curious about the neural interface that he had been using.  I poked it cautiously, wary of any lingering effects the overflow of data might have on its circuitry, but it appeared to be safe to the touch.  Tugging on it gingerly, I found that it moved slightly, but would not release its host.  I tried to peel up one of the edges to see what it could be caught on, but couldn't lift it enough to get a good glimpse of it.

Resigned to having to work for it, I put a hand to the floor and leaned down, trying not to look straight into Zamora's glassy eyes as I did.  I was also careful of putting my hand in the blood.   Working one finger under the interface, I pulled it up despite resistance and looked beneath.  Was that his hair?  I leaned in for yet another closer look, and when I figured it out, I jerked back, falling back on my heels and nearly on my behind.

"Whoa there," Duo said, suddenly behind me again.  He put a steadying hand on my shoulder and helped me regain my balance.   "What did you find under there?  Lice?"

I shook my head, taking a moment to use him to help me get up.  He silently waited for my brush with dizziness to pass.   "Microfilaments."

"What?"  He frowned.

"It looked like... they'd have to be nanotechnological microfilaments extending from the head piece through the scalp and probably connecting directly to the brain."

Duo looked slightly ill.  "You mean--?  Ewww.  So that interface is bonded to him permanently now?"

I looked over at the crisped shell of Zero, a pang of sadness running through me.  "There was probably a way to release the connections... but now, I'd guess we either cut them, or scalp him."

That didn't help him feel any better.  "Ugh, let's leave that for now, shall we?"  He tugged on my sleeve a little, pulling me away from the body.  "Wouldn't that hurt?  Retracting all the connections, I mean.  And for that matter, what if you got an itch under there or something?"

Dwelling on minutiae was a good way of avoiding thought about the big uglies staring you in the face.  "If the microfilaments are as fine as those looked, I imagine it would hurt even less than a pin prick.  Well, a lot of pin pricks."

Trowa drifted over to us.  "I didn't know that nanotechnology had progressed so far."

"That was one of those things that he did, right?" Duo asked.  "Cybernetics, computer vision, nanotech, and something else."

I nodded to both of them.  "The technology is actually pretty advanced, but almost none of it has been released for commercial use.  Since he was a researcher with an interest in the field, he would have had access to the resources necessary to make this sort of interface."

Trowa scratched thoughtfully at his chin.  "So he actually was pretty far along in his idea to embed the technology in humans."

Duo shuddered.  "Yeah, sure, except for the fact that after twenty-four hours, or after... whatever the hell it was he was doing, it'll fry your brain to a crisp.  Seems like that might keep it from ever getting past the testing phase."

"Well, yes, there is that."

He rolled his eyes, then turned to me with some comment, but my attention had already strayed back to the devices over which Zamora had hovered during his final minutes.  I wasn't familiar with them, but I could make a guess.  The table beneath the scanner was relatively clean, compared to the dust-covered surfaces elsewhere, leading us to believe that it was a piece of hardware that had existed in the lab before Zamora's arrival.  There was an LCD touch screen on it displaying generic readouts on voltage, currents, impulses and stability, but the values had been zeroed out when Zamora had removed the tray from the machine.

He had inserted that container into the console housing Zero, but when we extracted it, the tray was empty.  Either its contents had been consumed in the process that eventually overloaded the computer's circuits, or Zamora had been driven mad by Zero and there had never been anything in the tray to begin with.

There was certainly work done with hardware at some point, however, since there were wires and transistors and other pieces scattered through the lab.  Obviously he had to have been well-equipped to have constructed the interface that he had.  A handful of the microchips here had turned up missing in the Meridian inventory, along with three of the other small devices we found in the lab.

Though I had avoided looking very closely at Zero before in an attempt to put off learning the full extent of damage done to it, I forced myself to do so now, and I was glad that I did.  After popping the casing off, I peered inside the machine, thinking to myself that something didn't quite seem right.  Although I would have to consult with the Meridian research team to be certain that they hadn't made any modifications of which I was unaware, I concluded that some of the parts used in the Zero machine had been replaced with products of inferior quality.  Especially troubling was the memory core.   It was not the original unit that had been installed in Wing.  Had someone made a copy of the data?  And if so, where was the original now?

I grew worried, though the others managed to get me to admit that the data that Zero contained would be largely useless without the proper interface to access it and the proper processors to run it.  Still, given enough time, a person could eventually find a way to make use of the memory unit.  In exchange for the concession from me, I made them agree that it was definitely a matter to be looked into.

No one asked me if Zero had been damaged irreparably.  I don't think they wanted to know.  Of course, I wouldn't be able to tell for certain until I got back to HQ and ran a few diagnostics on it, but from a preliminary analysis of it, I predicted that at least some of it could be salvaged.  Zero had, after all, survived mostly intact after my last battle with it.  Certain parts of it had been made with an extraordinary degree of resilience with thoughts of combat-readiness in mind.  A little overload wouldn't destroy it.  The thought reassured me.

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