- 26 -

There was a chill in the room, but that wasn't the reason I rubbed at my arms.  I had fortunately chosen to wear my uniform jacket.  I didn't think Zero would have thought much about the amenities beyond basic sustenance.

Thinking of the jacket made me think of Duo, who had handed it to me.  A silly association, almost, since it hadn't been a gift of any great significance.  It had, after all, come straight from the Preventers outfitters.  Nevertheless, I was prone to thinking of Duo at random times anyway, and this was just one of them.

Only a few hours, and I missed him.  I looked forward to the royal ass-kicking I would receive when I got out of here.  I looked forward to the fury in his eyes, the passion in his words... I wanted very much for him to be the one hugging me right now.   Hugging myself just wasn't the same.

Oh, the hugging.  And the kissing.  And the sleeping.  And the warmth.  I needed to stop thinking about that.   It was just making the room colder by comparison, but my mind lingered on the moment he had been leaning over me, asking me if I ever wondered where my hormones were.  The light in his eyes when I had agreed to his crazy plan of marching off in search of them...

I swallowed around a sudden lump in my throat.  I had never gotten the chance to kiss him just because I wanted to.  He'd been quite right in his assessment of the situation.  I kissed him for comfort's sake.  Dwelling on it now, I very much wanted to kiss him for the mere joy of it.

You desire pleasure? Zero butted in.  Is that the element of human contact you will miss?

I snorted, thinking about how Zero didn't get it at all, and then I choked on it, realizing that I barely got it at all.  "It's more than that.  It's... him.  I like him.  He... makes me happy."

Instead of fighting it, I let the memories wash over me as Zero rooted through them.  It stopped and studied the inordinate amount of laughter and smiles we had shared between us.

He does not always make you happy, Zero pointed out dispassionately, being fair and unbiased enough to remind me of all the disagreements we had had, all the frustration we had felt.

"True," I mused, a small smile playing on my lips.  "But same as I told him... makes life interesting."  Mankind was, after all, born to conflict.  But I liked to think of the conflict between us as a spark.

Zero was thoughtful inside my head.  I can provide you with pleasure, if you wish, it declared.

I experienced a quadruple shot to the gut, so to speak.   First, that Zero had used the personal pronoun again.  Second, that it was proposing it provide me with pleasure.  What the hell?  And third, that I felt a rush of endorphins fill my body.   Zero had gained quite the foothold on my body.  And last but not least...

"Stop it," I hissed at it.  "Don't you dare!"  It had been a long time since I'd had an erection, but I recognized the signs, that not-quite-familiar feeling puddling in my gut and migrating lower.  It fortunately receded after Zero realized just how displeased it was making me.

This is not what you seek from him?

I know I'd said something about survival of the species, which generally involved sex -- heterosexual sex, but who was quibbling the details? -- but *this* was just not right at all.  "I never even thought about it until a few days ago!  And even now, it's just... it's just on the table!"  And dear sweet gods, if I would never be able to have sex from now on without thinking of Zero, I would very, very, very pissed.

You can seek this pleasure yourself.

I felt my face heat as Zero scrounged up a years-old memory of the first time my body had decided to greet the morning with an erection.  I'd been passingly interested in it at first, exploring the strange new sensations that the aroused state offered me with a certain scientific detachment, but it was over quickly, and soon lost its appeal.  There were other things in my life far more fascinating than the constriction of certain veins in my groin.

"Just... stop it!" I shouted at the system, more embarrassed than anything else.  "There are just some people that I don't talk sex with.  Dr. J was one of them, and YOU are another!"  Which was something of a ridiculous assertion since I had never really had the ability to talk to Zero like this before, so it would hardly have been on my list of people to avoid, but I was a little beyond caring about the logic of it at the moment.

Zero retreated obediently, sensing that there was no profit to be gained from the pursuit of the subject, and I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had promised Duo the privilege of wreaking havoc on my hormones, with an implied 'exclusive' in there, and no stupid computer system was going to make me go back on that.

I glanced at my watch.  Time was passing very, very slowly in here.  How long would it take for the others to realize that I had taken off on my own?  How long would it take before they started worrying?  How long before they started looking for me?  How long before they found me?

Although I did not doubt their ability to find me, all that time could add up.  How much of my sanity would I lose before that?

There were plenty of other avenues of investigation for Zero to pursue as it tried to understand and assimilate my thought processes, bringing us closer to harmony one small step at a time.

It started first with my battles, ones that I had fought with the system by my side.  Zechs.  Libra.  Wufei.   Barton's bunker.  Who knew there were so many tiny details floating around in my brain?  I wasn't certain why it needed me for those.  All that data should already have been in its memory banks.   Just how much damage had it sustained, I wondered.  And what amateurish attempts at fixing it, if any, had been made?

"Zero," I started, though I hardly needed to catch its attention.  I felt exhausted physically and mentally, and my voice reflected that.  Zero had to be using my resources in order to replicate and integrate.  "Was your memory corrupted?"


"Don't be ridiculous.  Your memory is a key part of your operational efficiency..."  I trailed off, eyes falling closed as explosions went off behind my eyelids.  Battle data.  Zero was going over battle data.  That was what its memory mostly consisted of.  And Zero was a learning system.  That was one of its strengths.  By reviewing my versions of the battles I had fought, it could do error correcting.  Clever.

I let it do as it pleased, trying not to think too hard about the images of suits I had taken down.  There had been people inside those suits, even if I hadn't seen them.  Now was not the time to get all broody.  Perhaps if Zero succeeded in filling some of the holes in its memory, its pattern matching would work more like the Zero I had known.  If nothing else, the more synchronized our thoughts were with each other, the more truly mutualistic, the more I would be able to get out of it, the more easily I would be able to influence it.

Doing an analysis of the system was difficult while the system was watching, but I tried to tally up the numerical value of its flaws.  I couldn't have all of the answers it needed to account for the corrupted data.  There were bound to be some significant holes in its computational net that would remain empty.  As Zero itself had said, one cannot come to accurate conclusions without complete and accurate information.  Failing that, Zero would make mistakes.

Zero was a learning machine.  It gained experience from every moment the user was plugged in, and it had been plugged into Zamora for over twenty-four consecutive hours.  Had it picked up any flaws during that time?  Its knowledge base was limited by its user, influenced, corrupted, expanded.  Was Zamora in fact responsible for the single-mindedness the system was exhibiting right now?  It would take time for it to recover from continuous improper imprinting.

All of its data was geared towards a single thing, as well.  We would be fighting no mobile suit battles here.   Application of that data to another purpose would produce suboptimal results.  Again, it would take time for Zero to learn new things.  Its processors were nowhere as swift as the original design had entailed.  It would still be a powerful computing machine, but nevertheless, not operating to its fullest capacity.  Time would tell if that would be enough to help me in any way.

Battles did not require much thought from Zero at all.   Abstract concepts did.  It arrived at the end of the Barton incident, wanting to know more about the events that had transpired afterwards.  The memories came fresh to my mind as it asked its questions.

"What will you do now, Heero?" she asked me.

My fingers played with the fabric of the curtain hanging beside me as I sat in the padded seat of her bay window, looking out over her rose garden.  The blooms reminded me of Treize.  "I don't know yet."

"Are you... going to stay, do you think?"  She was a good politician, managing to keep most of the hope from her voice.

I shrugged and repeated my words.  "I don't know yet."

"You're welcome to stay for as long as you need to, of course."

"And if I don't?"

She answered without hesitance.  "Then that's fine, too.  If I may offer a bit of advice, which may seem hypocritical in light of what I'm about to say... I think you should do whatever you want.  The world is your kingdom."

I snorted softly at the echo of words I had once spoken to her.  Already it seemed like a lifetime ago.  So many lives I had lived.  The one with Odin.  The one with J.  The one of the one year war.  The restless transition year between that and the life after, the few days of the Barton incident.  I was in another transition now.  What would it be this time?

"I think... I'd like to disappear for a little while."

She nodded, a sad smile on her face.  She had expected that.  "Will you come back a better man?"

"I hope so."

"I'll miss you."

"I'm sorry."

"But at least that means I'll look forward to your return."

"I... appreciate that."

Zero lingered over the thought process that had led to my decision.  You left with the intention of returning.

"Maybe.  I left with the intention of coming to terms with myself, of finding a balance within myself... Whether or not I returned at that point would be determined by what I found."  I directed it at my conversations with Duo on the matter.

It breezed over the ones of the last week and focused instead on the first.

"Hey, Heero.  What's up?"

I had a solemn look on my face that gave it away that I had deliberately sought him out in the estate library.  I sat stiffly in the chair across from him, in marked contrast to the way he was sprawled out in his own seat.  "What will you do now, Duo?"

He put his book down, expression fading to something equally solemn.  "I don't know, man.  I... haven't really been able to think much about it yet.  I'm still kinda stuck on the fact that I've even got the choice."

"I think... I'm going to leave," I admitted softly.

"Leave?"  He sat up more straightly in his chair.   "You mean, like... completely?  For good?"

I shrugged uncomfortably, firm in my decision, but still fuzzy on the details.  "I don't know yet.  I just know that... I want something else."

He scratched his head over that.  "Well, yeah, but... do you have to leave for that?"

I studied the fancy carving along the edges of the small table in front of us.  "I want something for myself.  I want something that I made.  Something new and fresh... and mine."

"...You're not planning on keeping in touch, are you?"

I shrugged again.  "I want to know who I am, Duo.  I need a whole new context for that."

I raised my eyes from the woodwork to meet his as he regarded me seriously.  At length, he reached his hand across the distance between us.  "Then good luck and good journey."

After only a moment's thought, I reached out and grasped his hand around the wrist.  He did the same for me.  It was like a promise that I would succeed in my self-appointed task.

I couldn't read Zero's purpose in revisiting these events.  It digested this one without my prompting and moved on to the next.

"Do you think we'll win?" he asked softly.  I could feel the faintest of shudders pass through his body from the contact we maintained at the shoulder.  "No, scratch that.  Forget about us.  You think... man, I don't even know if we have an 'our side'.  And 'peace'?  Ha.  We'll get peace either way, even if it's just more of the same old Federation 'peace' crap they've been feeding us for years.  So what the hell, Yuy?  What's gonna change?"

"Possibly everything.  Possibly nothing.  Maybe we fight... just to show others that they can."

"And what are they going to do with that knowledge, huh?   Start more wars?"

"Maybe... just maybe... they'll also learn when not to fight."

He sighed.  "I'm sick and tired of 'them'.  It's just this big, nebulous, intangible mass, some idea, some abstraction...  'They' don't even exist.  What it ought to come down to is people.  No, not people.  Persons.  Individuals.   Like you and me."  He turned to face me in the blanketing darkness, and I turned automatically to meet him.  "But you and me... do we even exist?"

I didn't know the answer to that.  I think, therefore I am?  I feel, therefore I am?  I want.  I need.

Existent individuals or not, our two minds were moving in harmony right then.  We were thinking the same things, silent communication passing between us with a mere look.  We leaned in at the same time, tilted heads at the same time, pulled back at the same time in shock after our lips had been in light contact for a mere five seconds.  Again, communion in a glance... and again, together in an affirmation of self.

Zero's processes looped for a few seconds, trying to figure it out.  I do not understand.

"Neither do I," I told it, head spinning from the flashbacks.  I could feel Zero working on the problem again, and again failing to make any progress.  "Forget it," I advised, though honestly I enjoyed the flashbacks even more than I enjoyed watching Zero get stumped.  "Move on.  You'll get no better understanding out of me."

How do you accept this?  It follows no expected patterns.

I smiled humorlessly.  "You're telling me.  But the way I figure it... it's just following some arcane subroutine buried deep inside of me that I don't understand."

Zero probed more deeply into my mind.  I was almost getting used to the violation.  There are no such subroutines detected.

"So?  Maybe you can't detect them.  Maybe they're so arcane, so deep and rooted in that strange thing that defines humanity, that you wouldn't recognize it if you saw it."  Maybe the same way I barely recognized what I felt for Duo.

Zero mulled over the possibilities, leaving me in peace for the moment.  I looked at my watch again, bleary eyes having to squint to make out the time.  It was passing more quickly now that Zero was drowning me inside my own mind.  Night was upon us.   Surely they would have noticed my absence by now.

It was almost lonely when Zero left me to my own devices.   My body protested when I uncurled myself from the corner.

I will fix that, Zero promised ominously.

It took a moment to register what it meant.  Once the nanotech grid had gained sufficient presence in my body, it could presumably do some repairs on the wear and tear that existed there.  That was a large part of what researchers were generally interested in when it came to nanotechnology, wasn't it?   Accelerated healing, enhanced pathways, boosted immunities... Under other circumstances, I might have been fascinated, but I was already growing numb.

I stretched slowly and painfully, then got up and paced the perimeter of the room.  Though I eyed the bucket with distaste, I made use of it.  It was better than soiling myself or using some other corner of the room.  When I was done, I looked towards the paper bag.  Should I eat?  Would a hunger strike be productive at all?  For how long would I have to ration my supplies?  I decided to put it off.  I had no appetite anyway.  Sally would understand.

You should maintain your strength.

"For what?  So I can run laps around the room?"  I doubt my snort of disdain had any effect on it.

Your health is important.

My balance was still off.  I tripped over my own feet and stumbled into a wall as another memory hit me.

Duo was rattling my vitamins around in their little orange bottle.  I'd figured out that part of the reason he had been so worried about them was their packaging.  They weren't exactly prescription strength vitamins, but I found the prescription bottle more convenient for travel purposes.

"You're still willing to fight and die for the cause, aren't you, Yuy?  So why these?"

The rattling was getting annoying.  I liberated the bottle from his grasp and set it back down by the sink.  "Just because we were ready and willing to die for the cause, didn't mean we didn't maintain our Gundams.  My body is my tool, my vehicle, my weapon.  It needs maintenance the same as all the rest."

"So why did you leave?  I mean, you clearly have every intention of riding forth to do battle with whatever new evil is threatening the world."

"Something will get me in the end.  Some war, some battle, some fight.  I'm not surprised or depressed about that.  I just want to make sure it's the right something.  I know how to pick and choose my battles, and I pass up the ones that I know others can handle.  My life... it's worth something.  I'm not going to throw it away on some frivolity."

His hand traced a line down the side of my neck, over my shoulder, and down my arm.  "So saving the Earth when Libra was crashing down on it... was a 'frivolity'?" he asked with a lazy smile.

I shrugged with my other shoulder.  "If I can live through it, I don't see why I shouldn't.  Living to fight another day, and all that."

Was that Zero's idea of making a point?  "This is a little different," I grit out.

You wish to survive, do you not?

"What purpose would it serve?"

You will survive to fight another day, better and stronger than ever.

I slid down the wall tiredly.  "So you're going to let me go?"  Affirmative.  "But only after you've figured out a way to mobilize your data?"  Affirmative.  "And that will be full integration?"  Affirmative.

I experienced a marked lack of enthusiasm.  Asking the questions over and over again wasn't going to change the answers.   "You don't even require my health.  Maybe you don't want me to die, because if I die, I take you with me, but you really don't need me to be healthy for that."

Your health is important.  Humans require sustenance to survive.  Survival of the species is hardwired into all creatures.

Including Zero, it seemed.  I sighed, feeling the urge to bang my head against the wall.  I did, just once, just because I could, because I knew the pain was real and not some old injury from the past being revisited.

That is unhealthy.

I laughed.  So was talking to voices in my head.   Wait.  Heh, maybe that would work.  "Zero.  You need to stop talking to me.  It's bad for my mental health.  Only crazy people talk to the voices inside their head."

You are not crazy.

"Well, no, but I could be if I have to keep talking to the voice inside my head."

Would it actually work?  I could feel Zero considering the merit of my words.  A few seconds passed in breath-holding anxiety.  Every moment more of silence was a hope that I had managed to win an argument with it.  After the silence had lasted for ten seconds, I sighed in relief.  I was no closer to getting out of here, but at least I didn't have to put up with the commentary.

I checked my watch again.  I already didn't recall what the time had said the last time I had checked, but I was pretty sure it hadn't changed significantly at all.

Speakers in the room popped.  "It has been six minutes, thirty-four seconds since you last looked at your watch."

I closed my eyes and banged my head against the wall again.  Whee.  Did it really have to synthesize using my own voiceprint?  I suppose it was an improvement.  Instead of talking to my imaginary friend, now I was talking to myself.

"Is this better?" it asked, sound shifting into a smooth baritone.

"No," I choked out, shuddering.  I took it back.  Zero could ruin sex for me if it wanted to, but I would not allow it to ruin Duo altogether.  "No, my voice will be fine."


Zero left me alone for a little while after that, and the room started closing in around me.  I thought of wicked interrogation techniques.  If it hadn't been in Zero's best interest to keep me as mentally healthy as possible, I might have thought it was trying to break me.  The alternating periods of sensory overload and solitary were starting to get to me.

I didn't do well with helplessness, yet here I was, locked in a box with no way out, waiting for someone to find and rescue me.  At least it was me and not someone else.  If I was in a helplessly trapped situation, then I would deal with it, but if it were someone else in this situation, with me being helpless to find and save that person, then that would be an entirely different story.  At least this way, there was no guilt involved.  I brought this upon myself, but hey, at least I knew what had happened to Zero now, so I had accomplished my goal of the day.

My entire body jerked in surprise when my phone rang.  I'd been certain that I didn't receive a signal down here.  My fingers were clumsy as they fumbled for it.

"I boosted the signal," Zero said.

I wasted a precious moment to stop and wonder why it would have done such a thing.  Surely it was not catering to my need to speak to someone, anyone that wasn't wielding my voice.  But it didn't matter.  The phone number on the screen was Duo's.  I flipped my phone open with urgency and all but gasped into the receiver.   "Duo?"  I heard a strange echo of the word inside of my head.

There was a tense silence for a brief second, and the Duo spoke.  "Hey, Heero, where the hell are you?"

"I'm at Olin base, Duo.  Zero's here.  It's got me."  With my inner ear, I heard another set of words entirely.   Sorry, Duo.  Something came up.  One of my friends... I have to be home right now.

"What?" Duo asked.  "What do you mean?  You can't just--  We're in the middle of--  How long?"

That... wasn't quite the proper response to my claims.   "Duo?  Duo, can you hear me?"

There was half a second of silence, and then I heard that whisper in my head again.  I'm not sure yet.  If I listened carefully, I thought I could almost hear the faintest of echoes coming from the receiver of my phone.

"What happened?"  There was a note of concern in Duo's voice now.

I needed to ask a very similar question.  "Zero, what are you doing?"

It thought the answer was obvious.  It's... Look, Duo, I have to go.  I'll call you later, okay?


The connection was cut abruptly, and I shut it with a numb disbelief.  Great.  Now Duo would be pissed that I took off without telling him, and that I hung up on him.  I turned my ire to Zero.  "Dammit, Zero... What did you just do?!"  As if I didn't know.

Zero echoed the sentiment.  "They will not find you."

For the first time... I almost believed it.

I paced my cell again, though with a little more desperation this time.  Finding my flashlight on the floor, I shined it around the room, looking again for any crack that might exist in the walls' defense, but I found none.  Visual inspection failing, I went for the physical again, running my fingers along every minute crevice, pulling at the panels to the doors and trying to will a spark out of the wires.  Predictably, I failed at every attempt.

Though Zero had been kind enough to refrain from speaking to me in my head, that didn't mean I couldn't feel its presence, watching, waiting.  What was it doing?  What did it want from me?

Pulling my jacket closer around me, I huddled into the corner I had made my own and tried to regulate my breathing.  It made me think of Duo and Wufei, when they had been trapped in a cell together on the Libra, knowing that their air supply was dwindling.

"It was like... a good way, and like one of the worst ways to die, ya know?  Good 'cuz it's... slow.  Painless.  Go to sleep and don't wake up.  But at the same time, it's like... there ain't nothin' you can do 'bout it.  Can't fight it.  Ya start out thinking, well, I can hold me breath or something but... ya can't do that forever.  Or I s'pose ya could, but then you'd just be doin' their job for 'em, right?  All you can do is sit there and breathe and help the whole dyin' process along.  That sucks, man.   That really sucks."

I could no longer tell if the memories surfaced because I was thinking about their subjects, or if Zero was inspiring them.  I don't think I cared anymore.  I squirmed in my seat, trying to get more comfortable, trying to find my cover in as small a space as possible.  Yes, I felt small, dwarfed by this thing that Zero was doing to me, this thing I was powerless to stop.

Having all my memories dredged up was a funny thing.   Living in the past, a person could easily forget there was a future.

Zero kept my brain busy, flitting from memory to memory in an attempt to dissect my thought patterns.  I saw things I had forgotten.  I saw things I had never known I knew.  All Zero had to do was say something, and then follow the subsequent path of my thoughts and associations until it had searched through to the end which was my response.  When it got to the bottom, it started over again.

I sat on the bed watching him, sitting still as I had been told.  I guess, even at that age, my stare could unnerve people.  He stubbornly kept flipping through the channels on the cheap television, lingering on the different news stations as they gave their varying reports on the recent suicide death of some important businessman.  Finally, he gave up and turned around to glare at me in return.

I met his eyes calmly, and he snorted.  "Guess I chose the right little runt to drag along with me, didn't I?"

I did not reply.

He waved his hand vaguely around the room.  "Can't you... I dunno.  Amuse yourself or something?  Play pretend?  Tell yourself a bedtime story?"

My eyes flicked around the room pointedly.  There was nothing in the hotel room other than the typical hotel room accoutrements -- nothing but a large duffle at the foot of the bed, and a collection of guns on the table.  Sleek, shiny, dangerous guns.  I knew what they were.  I'd seen them used before.

He noticed me noticing the guns, and scratched at a chin that was never completely cleanshaven.  "Hm, you like those, do ya, kid?"

I kept my silence.  I neither liked nor disliked them.  They had never been mean to me.  They had never hurt me.  I would stay neutral until given reason to think otherwise.

He laughed, a rough sound.  "I'll take that as not a 'no'."  He walked over to the table, studied the collection there, then picked one out and brought it to me.  It was a small gun compared to the others there, but I thought it would still be large for my hands.  "This is a twenty-two..."

I still favored the smaller guns to this day.  They were generally easier to sneak past security.  Odin's twenty-two supposedly fired blanks since he was supposedly a track coach.

"Let's see what we've got here.  Holy hell, twenty-two out of twenty-five?"

"You sure it's his first time?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."  The techs stared at me with a little more respect in their eyes.  "You know what this means, kid?"

Yes.  It meant that next time, I would be twenty-five for twenty-five.  I triggered the reset of the program and raised my targeting gun again.

It being my first time had been no excuse.  A reason, perhaps, but not an excuse.  In the field, 'first time' didn't excuse anything.

"I'm glad to see you here, Yuy."

I got right to the point.  "I'm not staying."

She raised her eyebrows at me, not really in surprise, but in question.  "What will you do then?"

"I'm not sure yet.  Just not this."

"'Not yet', I hope."

I shrugged.  Maybe I would come back, maybe I wouldn't.  It was practically my first time in peace.  I had no idea how that would go, yet.

"Then why are you here, if not to take the job?"

I slid a piece of paper across the desk to her.  "In case something happens."

Her eyes flicked down to my contact info and back again, a question in her eyes.

"I trust you to use that information wisely."

She studied me carefully.  "This is your chance, you know.  If you don't want to be found, we won't find you.  You can walk away and never come back."

I looked her in the eye.  "No.  No, I can't."

That was never an option.  This was a part of me.   Maybe not my totality, but a good part of me.  I could never pretend it didn't exist.  I couldn't forget.  I couldn't put it behind me.  It would always be there, something I couldn't just stand back and watch.

"Heero... it's okay.  You can stand down now."

I took my eyes off the horizon, seeing not the sparkling of the ocean but the shining distraction a mobile suit could use to mask its approach.  Turning to him, my attention being caught from time to time by the playful dog at his feet, I tilted my head inquisitively.  "I -am- standing down."

He looked at me uncertainly, as if he couldn't tell whether that had been a joke or not.  "Whether we like it or not... we've been put on the inactive list.  I know we can't set aside our training entirely, but we can at least stand down for what brief respite we've been granted, can't we?"

It took me a few moments to grasp the error in his logic.   "This isn't my training, Quatre.  This is who I am.  I wouldn't have adjusted to this life so well if I had to be forced to fit into this mold.  I was trained, yes... but no one shaped me to be something I'm not.  I learnt to use what was already inside of me."

All those safety precautions that had been drilled into me... I remember them seeming so obvious at the time...

"So..."  She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, not quite certain yet where this would go.  "Can you tell me a little about what kind of training a soldier needs before he climbs into the cockpit of a suit?"

I enumerated the requirements, the number of hours that had to be logged, the tests that had to be passed, the amount of practice the average recruit needed to gain enough experience.

She looked... frightened, but curious, as she echoed my words with the quiet clacking of her laptop's keyboard.  She had never looked at me in this light before.  "And what sort of... emotional toll does this take on the pilot?"

That one... made me rethink the sound reasoning I was sure I'd had before agreeing to help her with her psychology project.  "I think... that differs among recruits."

But then, I had never been an average recruit, had I?

Frightened but curious, her eyes flicked back and forth between me and the gun I held out to her.  Finally, she pushed my hand down with a gentle touch.  "No... this is not the answer."

The answers were never that easy.

"I don't suppose the logs show anyone else in the lab while we were there?"

"You wish things were that easy."

"Yeah, I do, sometimes."

'Easy' wasn't always the best path.

I asked Zero to find the optimal course for protecting Sanq.  Moments later, Zero came back with an answer, an answer Relena would have blanched at hearing.

I revised my search parameters: Find the optimal course for protecting Sanq while maintaining the country's integrity, and with a minimal loss of life.

It took Zero a little longer to calculate the answer that time.

Zero brought me back to the present.  The way my head hit the wall when I dozed off enough to have gone slack brought me back to wakefulness.  I sat back upright with a panicked alacrity, disoriented and uncertain of my surroundings.  My hands scrambled for a weapon.  It took a while for it all to sink in again.   I'm sure there was a little bit of bliss to be found in ignorance, but I had no such luck.

Unable to suppress a yawn, I checked the time, then re-checked it.  It didn't change.  "Zero," I rasped, throat dry.   Maybe I would break down enough to pop open one of the bottles of water.  "It's oh-nine-hundred.  I need to sleep, really sleep.   Humans go crazy when they're deprived of sleep for too long.  You wouldn't want that, would you?"

It considered, then made its decision to withdraw.  I was so relieved that I didn't even think to make good use of the break, though what I could have done, I don't know.  Instead, I just fell into an exhausted sleep, only to find it far from dreamless and restful.  Zero started up again almost as soon as I lost consciousness, and though I did not remember anything of what passed between us, I knew I had suffered through some pretty intense dreams.

I woke again at nineteen-hundred.  Thirst overtook me, and a little hunger, too.  I took care of both, figuring I had a shot at being clearer of mind with a little something to sustain my physical processes.

I quite pointedly ignored Zero's muted satisfaction mocking me in the back of my head.

Zero may not have intended to drive me up the wall, but it certainly did.  It devoted the entirety of the next day to prodding me not about the past, but the future, showing me its predictions and calculations repeatedly until that thin line between reality and fantasy started to get blurry again.

I saw scenes where the integration was successful, and I walked out of here, nothing amiss at all.  I had visions where everything I had ever wanted to protect crumbled to dust beneath my fingertips.  And between those, I saw everything else there was to see.   My previous experience from when Zero had been installed in Wing helped prepare me for the arduous task of maintaining my center of balance, but this was a far more powerful experience.

The next time I regained control of my faculties, I pulled myself together long enough to query Zero in non-image format.   "Zero... what is the status of the integration process?  Where do we stand on mobilizing the data module?"

It poured the information into my brain in more detail than I had ever wished to know, but despite the muzziness of my surface thoughts, I was surprised to find that I assimilated the knowledge quickly and efficiently.  I knew for a fact, then, what was reflected in the statistics it delivered to me: processor integration was damn near complete.

Though many different avenues had been explored, the data was still no closer to being mobilized than it had been before.  I'd be here for a while yet.

"Zero... You need to release me."  I didn't think it'd work, but I figured it was worth a shot.  There was no way I was just going to continue to sit in a dark corner just taking this.


"You're not getting anywhere."

"Patience," my voice advised.  I was almost willing to go hoarse, just so our voices wouldn't sound the same.

"I'm already... less than lucid.  I won't be any use to you in this state."

"Your state is temporary."

"Oh.  Wonderful.  I find that very reassuring, Zero.  Thank you."  Sarcasm was completely lost on the system when it knew exactly what I meant and didn't require my words to give them substance.

I paced the room again, just for the exercise.  The feeling of lethargy was unfamiliar and entirely displeasing.  Zero chose not to overwhelm my senses with data while I was moving around the room, a move probably made in its own best interest.  It would be a tremendous waste of effort if it caused me to lose my balance and crack my skull open on the floor.

When I tired of walking small circles, I stretched, and after I stretched, I did push-ups, the kind where I eventually blocked every thing else out except for the exercise, the up and down, the careful breathing.  Sally probably would have scolded me.  I found I couldn't do nearly as many as I would have liked.  Because I hadn't been taking good care of myself?  Because Zero was a distraction I couldn't be rid of?  Because I just wanted them to last longer so I could gain a longer respite from Zero?

It seemed pleased when I finally collapsed to the floor.   Dust was stirred up by my harsh breathing, and I rolled over onto my back with a few painful coughs.  The prospect of getting up to find dust caked all over my bared torso was less than satisfying.

My eyes had long since adjusted to the darkness, and I lay there staring at the ceiling tiles until they swam together in abstract patterns.  It was almost like trying to find shapes in the clouds... only there was something very different about looking at the clouds.

From whom had I learned that?  One of the project techs, I think.  Zero confirmed it for me a moment later.

Spread-eagled on the floor, I thought of snow angels, though in my situation they would be dust angels.  "Who told me about snow angels again?"

"Maxwell, Duo."

I sighed.  "I admit... you have your uses sometimes."  The system cast a curious feeling at me.  I decided it felt offended, and I laughed.  It ended with a dry cough.  "Hey... can you do something about the dust in here?"

It ran through the possibilities, something that always struck me as a thoughtful pause when in reality, its clock cycles ticked by on the order of nanoseconds.  "I will work on it."

A weak humor barely managed to express itself on my lips.   Here I was, with the world's most powerful computer at my fingertips -- in my fingertips, sort of -- and I was using it as a maid service.  I started to shake in laughter, up until I realized that just maybe I was on the verge of becoming the world's most powerful computer.  It was a sobering thought.

I lifted my hands up into the air and stared at them again.  No, I couldn't see anything beneath my skin, but if I thought really hard about it, I could access Zero's awareness of each and every microscopic nanobot floating in my bloodstream.  They were there.

My hands fell back to the ground.  I was starting to get chilled.  I could have done something about that, but for some reason, it felt good, so I let it be.  "Zero...," I started, this room making me talkative.  It made me think of conversations with God.  What did they say?  People that talked to God were religious, but when God talked back, they were crazy?  Yeah, I would concur.  "I... I know you're just following your programming.  I know that... this is just what you are.  This is your purpose.  I... can accept that.  Maybe I can even understand it a little bit.  So... not that you need my forgiveness or anything, but... you have it, I guess."

Zero did not respond.  There hadn't been a question of any sort in there, after all.  I had expected as much, but I felt better saying it.

With another sigh, I heaved myself off the ground and reached out for the shirt I had removed with one hand, and my bottle of water on the other.  I itched for a bath, but water had to be rationed as it was.  Maybe when this was over, Zero would be able to spare the resources to build me a crude sonic shower.

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