I do not own Gundam Wing, its characters, mobile suits, place names, organizations, etc. (Bandai, the Sotsu Agency, and everyone else I forgot to mention does). The picture on the title page and under the heading of each part belongs to someone else. This story happens after the end of the series and uses certain events and items only in historical reference. Most of the characters, mobile suits, and organizations have changed slightly due to time. Despite all of this, I beg you not to sue me, because you’d only get about ten bucks out of me (which really isn’t worth it).
P.S. Copy this and… omae o korosu (courtesy of Heero).
P.P.S. I’m just kidding.
Gundam Wing: Shadows of the Past
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Part One: The Death Wish
"She’s lost," the doctor murmured as the nurses wheeled away the surgical carts. "You can talk to her one last time, my lady."
A girl of about nineteen, with long, wavy, dark green hair and startlingly dark blue eyes hurtled through the door, nearly knocking over the orderlies in her rush to reach her mother’s side. She sank into a chair, her eyes filled with worry and anxiety over the woman sleeping soundly on the hospital bed, on the verge of death. Feeling a little guilty about what she was about to do, the girl placed her cool hand on the woman’s feverish forehead, willing herself to relax and slip into a state of near-unconsciousness, her psikinetic mind reaching out to see what her mother was seeing.
The woman was flashing back to a room, bare except for a crib in the corner and a writing desk. She sat down at the desk, a pad of stationary paper and a fountain pen in hand, her ears registering the high giggles of a baby from the crib. Uncapping the fountain pen, she wrote the words ‘Dear Heero and Heptamera,’ then paused, glancing up to see a tall, handsome man standing in the shadows beyond the desk, smiling down at her. The image blurred then faded away, changing to the picture of a burning space colony quickly diminishing in the distance, eventually exploding into fragments as a voice whispered, "I’m sorry, Genevieve." Once again, the image blurred and disappeared, replaced with another one of a little girl shrinking back from the woman’s hands, wailing, "I hate you! I wish I wasn’t your daughter!" The woman’s voice replied, "You almost weren’t." The girl was silent, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The young woman pulled her hand away, agony wracking her soul. She’d known that these memories were there, locked in her mother’s heart, far from prying eyes. But she had always had the power to see them, without her mother noticing. When she removed her hand from her mother’s face, she must have pulled some of the pain with it, for the woman suddenly woke up and saw the girl sitting there, frozen in shock.
"Heptamera!" the woman gasped, lunging up from the pillows.
The young woman grasped her hand and pushed her back down. "Hush, Mother! Don’t get too excited, you’ll drain your energy!"
"Heptamera, where’s my baby? Where’s your new brother?" she cried.
The girl looked away, as if towards a hidden crib. The sound of wails could be heard from down the hallway. "He’s in the nursery, Mother. He’s all right."
"Take care of him for me, my dear. I – I won’t be here much longer."
"Don’t talk like that, Mother. Please, try to rest." Heptamera tried to hold her mother down to the mattress as a fresh gush of blood poured out of her damaged uterus.
"No, I can’t! I mustn’t!" she wailed, pushing herself back up from the bed. "My son! I have to tell my son!"
"Mother, please…" Heptamera whispered. How can a baby comprehend adult speech? she wondered.
"You don’t understand! Nobody does! I didn’t abandon him on purpose! I couldn’t do anything else! I was trapped!" the woman screamed.
Heptamera had gone pale. "Who?" she whispered. "Who did you abandon?"
"I didn’t, I tell you! I DIDN’T!"
"All right, all right, you didn’t," she whispered, trying to be soothing.
"Heero, oh, my Heero…"
Heero. The name sparked a memory. Something in a history book she’d once read in the library deep within the bowels of the royal estate. Heero Yuy, leader of the space colonies of a planet called Earth, who’d been assassinated during a goodwill tour almost 25 years before. What did he have to do with anything going on now? And why had her mother written his name on the letter, right before her own?
"Heptamera, listen to me!" her mother hissed suddenly, clutching at her daughter’s sleeve. "Find someone to care for your baby brother. Then, you must go to Earth. Find a young man called Heero Yuy. Give him this," she pressed an envelope into the girl’s hand. "Tell him –" she coughed, specks of blood appearing on her lips, "- tell him it’s from his mother. If he asks you who you are, you are his sister. Please, grant me this last request, Heptamera."
Her eyes locked with those of her daughter, which had suddenly filled with tears. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she closed her eyes and sank into a state of utter calm. Her mind reached out and listened to her daughter’s thoughts. Time and years of hearing and being unable to confront her daughter’s undeserved guilt only sharpened the pain and sorrow she felt at what she heard.
< I’m sorry, Mother, I shouldn’t have ever been born. It’s my fault that my brother isn’t here with us. It’s all my fault. Father’s dead because of me, and you and Uncle Valdar can’t even look me in the eye without feeling immense pain. I’m so sorry, Mother! I caused you more grief when I was a nine-month-old baby than I ever will in my entire life, and my presence only creates more. If you don’t ever forgive me, I’ll understand. It’s all my fault, and nobody else’s. I’m trying to make up for all the things that Father and Heero could have done, but I can’t ever replace them in your heart. Thank God you can’t hear what I’m thinking, or you would tell me that I’m not to blame. But that’s not really forgiveness, is it? I doubt Heero will understand, either. After all, it’s my fault that he’s never known you or Father or Uncle Valdar or me… or the baby. But nobody will know the baby now, because he died, Mother. They couldn’t save him, and I couldn’t do anyt! hing about it! Oh, God, please forgive me… >
Her mother forced her eyes to open and saw the tears streaming down Heptamera’s cheeks for the first time in the girl’s life since she was five. The woman fell back against the pillow, eyes glazed over, unable to speak, unable to tell her daughter that she had forgiven her for all that she had never done. Within moments, she was dead.
Heptamera gently covered her mother’s face with the sheet before standing up. "I’m sorry, Mother. I can’t find anybody to take care of the baby, because there is no baby. He died soon after he was born. That was Vingt’s son that you heard. I’m so sorry."
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"My lady!" someone shouted.
Heptamera paused in mid-step, slowly turning around. "Yes?"
A young man with wild, light gray hair and round, owlish glasses perched on his nose, wearing the uniform of a Senator’s assistant loped across the length of the Government Forum on a pair of crutches. "I’m Garrett Quinze, a friend of your father’s aide. I apologize for not showing the proper formality, but, as you can see, my ankle doesn’t allow it." He nodded towards his plaster-bound foot.
"That’s all right. I tend not to like formalities anyway."
"Right, then. I just heard about your mother. Terribly sorry, I am. She asked me to give this to you, with this note, in case she died or disappeared. I suppose this would be the time. I’ll see you later, then."
He pulled a box with a slip of folded paper attached out of the side pocket on his pants, handed it to Heptamera, gave her a brisk salute and swung around, heading back to the offices located above the Forum. She watched him go, then continued her trek down the hallway towards the front lawn, muttering to herself, "So that’s whom she’s marrying…"
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Her black cloak swirling around her shoulders, Heptamera strode purposefully towards the space hangars at the other end of the complex, the strap of her satchel nudging the base of her neck. Someone called out to her and she turned to find her father’s aide, a young woman with short, flaming red hair and light green eyes who went by the name of Diez Walker, hurrying towards her. "Your stepfather told me to come with you," she explained, "and I know I’m not much of a help around here, so I figured I might as well."
Heptamera shielded her eyes and glanced up at the sky. Several transport jets rumbled past overhead, directed towards the east, where the sun was just now rising, spreading rosy streaks across the underbelly of the clouds. "It’s overcast. All the better. We can leave without the Black Cobra scouts noticing."
"Where are we going?" Diez asked.
Heptamera looked at her inquiringly. "Why, Earth. Where else?"
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"Sentry to Cobra Leader. Radar cloaking is operational. We’re over the enemy base, above the cloud cover."
"Good. Take down any vessels that try to leave the base."
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"Good morning, Colonel. Is the craft ready for departure?"
The gray-skinned Thelnaqian colonel glanced over his shoulder, a protest forming on his lips, when he glimpsed a flash of blood-red silk, used only for the interior of the royal cloaks, and caught sight of the royal crest emblazoned on the intruder’s uniform over his right wing. "Yes, Commander. Would you like an escort?"
Heptamera raised an eyebrow. "For a MS? I don’t think so."
The colonel choked back on his warning. "A – a – a mobile suit?"
"Yes. I am taking a mobile suit, specifically the Falconer CTAT 2 Custom, serial number JQ9352-7, up in a self-retrieving rocket," she explained patiently.
Diez glanced at Heptamera nervously. "Are you sure, my lady? It might be mistaken as a military mobile suit and –"
"Shot down? Me? If they so much as touch me, they will be violating my right to travel safely through any territory. Besides, the Falconer is a military mobile suit."
"But the signaling systems are down, and they’ll attack!"
"Double-hardened crystalline titanium, Diez, merely dents under attacks from point-blank range. Only one weapon can harm it, and I doubt that Black Cobra, as advanced as they are, have it in their arsenal. Why that band of cutthroats would even dare to attack us is beyond me, but as long as they cannot launch a full-scale invasion without risking the wrath of our allies, we are safe."
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"Cobra Leader, our radar has detected a vessel launching from the enemy base. It appears to be a large rocket."
"Well, destroy it! We must let them know that we want a battle! They have suppressed us for too long."
"Yes, sir. Launching missiles."
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Diez, strapped into the seat behind the pilot, let out a piercing scream and pointed at the radar feed. "There! That reconnaissance jet is firing at us!"
Heptamera watched the missiles fly past the booster rocket and explode behind them on the radar. "They missed! Calm down, Diez, they missed!"
"They’re blasting them off again!"
This time, both missiles hit the outer casing of the booster rocket and exploded, destroying the protective shell around the mobile suit. The entire mobile suit rocked with the blast, throwing clipboards and equipment out of the lockers. "We’re going to die!" screamed Diez, clutching the seat in front of her.
Heptamera didn’t bother to respond. She pulled on her gloves and headset, then pressed a button before her on the panel. Her seat fell through the floor, leaving Diez alone in the passenger chamber. "Wait! Where are you going?" she cried. "You can’t being ejecting!"
Further down along the chute, Heptamera had already linked the electrodes on her gloves and headset into the pilot control feeds in her seat. "All right, I should get there any time now," she muttered.
Finally, the chair halted about an inch off the floor of the cockpit. Heptamera’s head snapped forward briefly over the controls before she straightened up and placed her hands on the manual cannon triggers. "Falconer 7 is online. Initiate IGS. Ignite rockets and begin ascent. Heat shields in position, Cannon 1 locked on target." She flipped up the top of the right trigger and pressed the button.
Diez watched as the mobile suit shook off the last of the debris from the rocket and shot upwards. The initial thrust pinned her back in her seat as the rockets located on the back of the suit roared to life. She saw the missile burst out of the cannon mounted on the arm and headed straight for the sentry. The jet went up in smoke. Suddenly, a formation of several jets burst through the roiling smoke, headed straight for them. Coming to herself, she recalled the radio headset she’d stashed above her head and pulled it down, clamping it over her ears. "Headquarters, this is Falconer 7, I repeat, this is Falconer 7. We are under attack. Please send backup."
The transmitter crackled to life and the voice of the colonel came through. "Falconer 7, this is Headquarters. You are under attack by a squadron of Black Cobra fighter jets. All extra attack vessels have been called away for emergency transport. We cannot send backup."
Suddenly, Heptamera’s voice cut in, overriding the wavelengths. "Diez, don’t bother Headquarters. I can handle this perfectly well on my own."
The mobile suit began to fly backwards, towards a towering thundercloud. At the controls, Heptamera was straining against the thrust levers before her, trying to ignore the blinking warning lights, muttering, "C’mon, you damn snails, follow me. That’s right, keep on coming. You’re slower than my grandmother, y’know that?"
"Warning, maximum speed limit achieved. Rockets are overheating," the voice of the IGS told her.
"Oh, shut up. Terminate IGS."
Diez shouted into the intercom, "Are you crazy? You’re headed straight for the mountain!"
"Oh yes, I know I am, Diez. Just leave it up to me."
"You know you’re what? Crazy, or about to crash into the pile of rock they call ‘Death Peak?’"
They entered the thunderhead, and everything went black. In the darkness, the control panel lit up before Heptamera. The radar, which was beginning to fuzz due to the electricity building up in the cloud, showing that the enemy was still closing in. At the last moment, before the suit hit the mountain, she pulled up, flying out of the cloud. Below, the jets could be seen entering the haze. "That oughta screw up their radar," Heptamera crowed, as she flew up through the atmosphere.
Looking out the window, Diez saw a sudden flash within the thundercloud. A thick, roiling, black cloud of smoke frothed up towards them, carrying shards of metal and red-hot broken glass. Heptamera must have seen it as well, because she abruptly shifted the MS into its transatmospheric jet form, accelerated, and brought them out of the range of the inferno and into the darkness of space.
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Quatre Raberba Winner sat back in his swivel chair, letting it rotate slowly so that he was facing the giant window of his office, looking out over the Earth. He mused to himself, "Earth is so beautiful from here, suspended in space…"
A large object hurtled past the window. Quatre sat up in surprise. It had to be at least five kilometers away, between the L4 and L5 colony clusters, and moving away fast, towards Earth, but he could have sworn that it had wings…
Someone knocked, and he turned to see his sister Melanie enter the room. "Did you see that?" he asked.
"What?" she queried, a little confused.
"Never mind…" he muttered, staring out into the darkness of space, thoughtfully
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Duo Maxwell leaned back and watched his partner Hilde Schbeiker doze off in the copilot’s seat of their salvage shuttle. Since the end of what was now called the Barton Revolt, Hilde had been working with the Sweepers Group in another area. The two of them had only been reunited when she dropped by Duo’s base to deliver some messages. They now worked together as a team and were returning from the area around the L5 colony cluster, loaded down with a full cargo of space debris. He sighed, staring out the window in near-total boredom, the shuttle’s navigation system on autopilot. Suddenly, something streaked across the sky in front of him. He jostled Hilde awake, and a minute later, they were on the broadband videophone to Preventer Headquarters in Berlin, reporting a suspicious-looking meteor passing between the L4 and L5 colony clusters.
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A tall, lanky young man with mussed rich brown hair sat beneath a tree on the front lawn of New Oxford University at dusk, typing on a laptop sitting in front of him on top of his pack. The glow of the screen lit up his shadowy face, reflecting in the frigid dark blue of his eyes. After a moment, he turned off the laptop and closed it, stuffing it into his pack. Leaning back against the tree and staring up at the sky, still devoid of stars, he muttered, "It’s so peaceful here. I don’t have to kill anyone anymore, and I can learn to be normal. Nobody around, nobody who wants to destroy everything we’ve created…"
He glanced up at the velvety black night sky to see shooting star arch across the moon. He watched it curve and head down into east, somewhere over Europe. Closing his eyes, he whispered to himself, "I wonder if she sees it too…?"
A dark figure approached the young man from the direction of the men’s dorms. "Carson, the dean wishes to speak with you."
As the young man headed off towards the school, the messenger glared after him, a malevolent glint in his eyes. "Soon, Heero Yuy, you shall fall just as my uncle did… You and the rest of the world shall know the power of OZ Gen-X and the wrath of Michael Kushrenada!" he hissed.
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Trowa Barton did cartwheels around his sister, Catherine Bloom, avoiding every knife she threw. Finally, he did a handspring and landed, upright. "Your aim’s still good."
"And you still amaze me. Where did you learn to do cartwheels like that?"
He walked out of the circus tent and out into the cool evening air. It was past eleven o’clock, but he didn’t mind. Sleep only meant nightmares, or strange dreams that he could never remember when he woke up. He stared up at the night sky. "I used to think space was for people like me. Now, I’m not so sure…"
Catherine had followed him outside. "Look! A shooting star!"
Trowa watched it move towards the east. He remembered how, during Operation Meteor, he and the other Gundam pilots had come down to Earth, disguised as shooting stars. The memory made him feel a little uneasy.
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Sally Po raced down the corridor of Preventer Headquarters in Berlin, scattering the other agents. She reached the end of a hallway, breathless, and rapped on the door. Lucrezia Noin’s sleepy voice muttered, "Go away. It’s eight in the morning and it’s a Saturday."
"Wake up, Lucrezia! We have to leave in fifteen minutes!"
"We’ve had several calls, reporting a meteor with wings."
Lucrezia was up and at the door in a flash. "What?"
"Knew that’d wake you. Come on, get dressed, they’re sending us out to find out what or who it is."
Zechs Merquise jogged past, clipping his gun holster to his belt. "I’ll catch up with you in about an hour. I’ve got some personal business to attend to."
Lucrezia stared after him. "Never heard him say that before."
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Relena Darlian was standing by the huge bay window of the town house that was serving as the Earth Sphere United Nation’s meeting hall and embassy until the real embassy, which had been bombed during the Barton Revolt, was finished. There was a light drizzle coming down outside, darkening the asphalt of the street and making the lawn glisten with raindrops. She sighed, watching puddles form on the sidewalk. Somewhere near the front of the house, she could hear the clang of pots and pans and the sizzling of meat. I hope this rain clears up before the party tomorrow night, she thought, tracing the gilt pattern on the cushions sitting on the window seat. Someone knocked on the door, three brisk taps in succession. "Come in," she called, not bothering to turn around.
She heard the door hinges creak slightly as whoever it was entered. "I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Relena, but someone wishes to see you."
Relena glanced over her shoulder to see the butler. "Send them in," she replied, listlessly.
He bowed out the door, returning after a few seconds with a towering form behind him in the shadows. "Mr. Zechs Merquise of the Preventer Agency."
The guest edged his way into the room, shutting the door behind him. "Hello, Miss Darlian. How are you?"
Relena smiled at her brother. "Bored, but all right, I suppose. You could have asked me over the phone."
He chuckled. "And not come in person? I haven’t seen you since your eighteenth birthday."
"That was, what, half a month ago?"
"About. What’s so boring about being Vice Foreign Minister?"
She sighed, staring out the window again. "I don’t know. Mother was so worried, she even enrolled me at New Oxford University for the post-winter holiday trimesters, just so that I could take a break from work and so that I could learn more. What’s the point of taking a break if I only wind up doing more work, right?" She gave him a crooked smile. "I wish there was more excitement in my life."
Suddenly, she clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh, wait. The last time I wished that, I saw Heero for the first time."
Zechs had moved across the room, standing beside her at the window as she spoke. He cleared his throat. "I suggest that you not make any more wishes. Look over there, towards the mountains."
Relena squinted through the sheets of rain that had begun to pound the lawn. She could just make out the rise and fall of the mountains beyond the spaceport. "What about them?"
"Do you see something coming down out of the clouds?"
Relena peered through the rain, then straightened up with a gasp. "But it can’t be – they’re all –"
"Gone? I don’t know. Lucrezia kept her Taurus in storage even after the first disarmament, and I have a feeling it’s still there. She’s with Sally right now on a mission, and she left the keys to her storage stall with me. I self-destructed the Tallgeese III after the final battle against the Mariemaia Army, and, as far as anyone knows, the Gundams were self-destructed as well. I came over to tell you that several colonists and two members of the Sweeper Group called in to report a strange-looking meteor, and we sensed it on radar when it came through the atmosphere. We’re going to send out a squad to see who or what it is."
"But how can that be a mobile suit?"
Zechs shrugged. "Maybe it’s your friend Heero."
She shook her head. "No. His MS doesn’t look like that, even in its neo bird mode."
Her brother glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and noticed a single tear roll down her cheek.
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Heptamera pulled back on the controls, letting the converted MS lower itself to the ground. Diez was stilled huddled up in her seat, groaning. "I think I’m going to be sick," she moaned through the intercom.
"Don’t do it in here," Heptamera retorted before opening the hatch on the passenger compartment. "I just had it cleaned last week."
Diez grasped the edge of the opening and thrust her head out, gulping oxygen. Eventually, she slumped back into her seat. "Do you have to accelerate that much during the entry stage?"
"Why, would you rather that we were burned slowly into a crisp while we fall through the atmosphere?"
Diez turned a rather nasty shade of green. "Excuse me, my lady, while I get some fresher air." She hastily unbuckled herself from the harness and climbed out the window.
Heptamera sighed and opened the hatch of the cockpit, glancing at the ever-growing sheet of paper spooling out of the data computer mounted on the dashboard in front of her. She ignored it and dropped down into the locker area in the nose of the jet. After a few minutes, she emerged, clad in black coveralls bearing the double insignia of the Intergalactic Strike Force and Intergalactic Peacekeeping Council, a heavy jacket, and tall leather boots, her hair tucked up under a baseball cap. Picking up the end of the sheet still pouring out of the printer, she began to scan its contents. She was still reading the feed from the computer fifteen minutes later, unaware of the fact that Diez still hadn’t returned, when she heard the safety of a rifle click off behind her left ear. "Please step outside, sir."
Slowly, she turned to see a woman with dark blue hair and violet eyes aiming a gun at her head. She turned off the computer and climbed out, hands raised. "Lucrezia Noin of the Preventer Agency, I suppose?" she asked calmly.
Lucrezia balked at her. "How…?"
"Never mind that. What’s my charge?"
Another voice cut in from behind her. "Operating an illegal Mobile Suit in non-aggressive territory and invasion of a non-aggressive territory. What have you to say for yourself?"
Heptamera glanced over her shoulder and saw another woman with light brown curls and sharp brown eyes standing by a heavily armored transport, holding a rather wilted Diez by the shoulder. Before she could respond, however, there came a gasp from someone standing on the transport. A young woman with light brown hair and violet eyes leapt down from the bed of the platform and dashed towards them. "Hold your fire!" she shouted to the hidden crewmen aboard the transport.
Lucrezia called out, "Minister Darlian! Don’t come any closer!"
Relena stopped short of slamming straight into Heptamera. "Heero! Where have you been?"
"Heero? Do you know him?" Heptamera asked, bewildered.
Relena looked her full in the face, then took a small step back, startled. "You’re – a girl? But you look exactly like Heero!"
Heptamera dropped her hands to her sides, then, as an afterthought, pulled off her cap, letting her dark green hair fall down over her shoulders. "I do?"
Relena’s mouth dropped open. "Your hair – it’s green!"
Heptamera raised an eyebrow. "Do you know where Heero is?"
Relena made a visible effort to shut her mouth. "No. Do you?"
Heptamera shook her head. "I came here to look for him. Sorry about the mobile suit; it’s the fastest way to get here, other than a teleportation pad." She gestured towards the converted MS.
Relena seemed to withdraw into herself for a minute before she ordered, "Drop all charges against this individual. Don’t worry, Noin," she told Lucrezia, seeing her about to protest. "She’s not an aggressor. In fact," here, she gave Heptamera a watery smile, "she’s now my guest."
"We’ll have to confiscate this… jet, though," Lucrezia said, a little tentative.
"It’s a converting mobile suit. I think it’ll fit on the transport. The problem is that it requires voice activation, but I think that you can slide it up onto the transport without having to turn it on."
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"Thank you for getting me out of that situation, Miss…?"
"Just call me Relena. Most people call me Minister Darlian, but I prefer my first name." Relena smiled at Heptamera over the top of door of the changing stall, the din of the busy street outside muffled by the thick glass doors and soft elevator music.
"Thank you, Relena, for that and for the gracious invitation to your ball tonight. I suppose Diez would thank you, too, were she not feeling so… unwell. And thank you for enrolling me at the university as a cover story. So, who else is coming to the party?"
Relena ticked off the names on her fingers as she recited the entire guest list, pausing ever so often to let Heptamera try on another gown. "… my brother, Zechs Merquise of the Preventer Agency, Minister Parvani and his family from the L2 colony cluster, Mr. Chaung and his wife, the Winner family, all forty-five of them –"
"Twenty-nine sisters and one brother, Quatre, an old friend of Heero’s." A shadow passed over her face for a moment. "Add in the husbands of the fifteen who are married, exclude their children, and you have forty-five people who run Winner Enterprises."
"Ah. Pray continue."
"Mr. and Mrs. Long, from the L5 colony cluster, Ambassador Une of the Preventer Agency, Lucrezia Noin, also one of the Preventers, and Sally Po. You’ve met Lucrezia and Sally. Lucrezia was the one with the gun the other day, and Sally was the one holding Diez. Now, let’s see how you look."
Heptamera pouted for a moment before she pushed open the door of the changing stall. She pulled a sour look when Relena clapped her hands and cried, "It’s perfect!"
"Bright pink, my friend, does not suit me terribly well. I look and feel like bubble gum exploded all over me." She plucked at the fluorescent silk train.
"Actually, now that you mention it, that does look a little blinding." Relena shielded her eyes. "Let’s go look for something in a darker color."
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Melanie Winner and her sister Iria, out of the colonies for the first time in over a year and a half after her return from the hospital, watched a cluster of young men from across the ballroom of the government’s town house. "I wonder who it is that they’re crowding around," Melanie whispered to Iria.
Their brother walked up to them from behind, startling Iria into jumping three feet straight up into the air. "Hello, Mel, Iria. Who’re you looking at?"
Quatre looked rather handsome in his new dark blue tuxedo. He had grown taller since the days he had worked as a Gundam pilot, and his eyes had a look of age around the corners that disappeared when he smiled. He glanced across the room at the crowd of men. "Hmm. Either it’s a diplomat, a celebrity, or a really pretty girl."
The group suddenly scattered as a figure clad in a flowing white silk gown walked towards them, revealing their object of interest, a beautiful young woman with long, wavy, dark green hair in a gown of blue and gold silk. Quatre’s jaw dropped when he saw her face. "She… she looks like Heero!"
Iria nudged him in the ribs. "I doubt that’s any relative of your friend. Think about it. Since when has he been know to have green hair?"
"Maybe he didn’t inherit it. If it isn’t someone related to him, then who is it?"
"Why don’t you go over and ask? You know Vice Foreign Minister Darlian personally, don’t you?"
"Uhm, yes, yes I do."
He scooted away from them and tried to walk casually across the room. Relena spotted him before he was halfway across and waved at him, beckoning him towards her and her strange companion. "Good evening, Quatre. I’d like to introduce you to Princess Heptamera Xelcon, a friend of mine who just arrived two days ago. Heptamera, this is Quatre Winner, heir of the Winner family fortune and head of Winner Enterprises."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Winner." Heptamera held out her gloved hand, expecting him to shake it. Instead, he raised it to his lips briefly before letting it go.
"It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Highness."
"Oh, dear." Heptamera looked nervous.
"Nothing, Mr. Winner. It’s just that I abhor being called ‘Your Highness’ or anything like that, and I draw the line at ‘my lady.’ I’d rather you called me Heptamera… if you don’t mind, that is."
Quatre sighed with relief. "It’s all right, Heptamera. Please, call me Quatre."
Relena smiled at the two of them. "I’ll leave you alone for now."
She glided away towards the band, her face a set mask. Heptamera stared after her. "Is she all right?"
Quatre began to shrug, then stopped himself guiltily. "She must miss Heero. It’s been two years, and none of us have heard anything from him."
"How are you acquainted with Heero?" she asked, turning to scrutinize his face.
"We were both part of the Gundam Team. I’m sure you’ve heard of us."
"Ah, yes. The Eve Wars, A.C. 195, during which the old Alliance was overthrown and, after the rival factions had been quelled, the Earth Sphere Unified Nation was formed. You and four other mobile suit pilots, including Heero, played a major role in ending it."
"Yeah, I suppose that’s true, though it was mostly Heero’s work."
Heptamera cocked her head slightly. "What’s Heero like?"
"To tell you the truth, he was standoffish and rather unfriendly at times. We wore him down after awhile, though. At least he stopped threatening to kill anyone who came near him. This might sound a little tactless, but do you know what’s odd about you?" he asked suddenly.
She raised an eyebrow. "What might that be?"
"You look exactly like Heero, only, well, you know…" he trailed off.
"Only I’m not a guy. You’re the second person who’s told me that. I suppose I’ll be hearing it a lot for awhile."
"Who else said that?"
"Relena. She was the one who came with the Preventer Agency when they found me after I landed my mobile suit outside of town."
Heptamera looked at him, puzzled. "My mobile suit. Don’t you have some on Earth somewhere?"
"No… we disarmed ourselves about three years ago." He looked at her suspiciously. "Where are you from? Who exactly are you?"
She sighed. "I suppose I can trust you, though I don’t know why. I really have to learn to keep my mouth shut. Come with me out to the garden and I’ll explain."
He trailed after her, ignoring the winks and nudges from his sisters and brother-in-laws. What is going on here? he wondered.
She stopped behind a row of thorny rosebushes and sank down upon the bench, motioning for him to do the same. "My name is Heptamera Xelcon, and I am a princess. That much you know about me. What you don’t know you’ll just have to take for the truth until I can prove it." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "I’m not precisely from around here, as you can tell, and I’m not strictly from the colonies, either. I’m from another planet called Thelnaq."
Quatre stood up. "I don’t believe you."
Heptamera stared up at him through her eyelashes. "I’m not asking you to. Just hear me out, all right? Most people from Earth don’t think I’m from another planet. Hell, most people don’t even know Thelnaq exists. After all, very few people know who’ve ever come back to Earth, and then only for a short time. There are humans like yourself in other galaxies, humans who have been presumed as dead, lost in space. I am a descendent of some of those humans."
"Okay, then, if what you say is true, how does that explain the mobile suit and why you look so much like Heero?"
"Some scientists who came to Thelnaq specialized in making military weapons. Recently, we’ve been making mobile suits for combat and reconnaissance, along with a handful of other civilized planets in this universe. Most of the other races are pacifist, and we are, in a sense, their protectors. We cannot turn on them even if we wanted to because they are our allies and economic lifelines. They produce the food and some of the raw materials we use. In exchange for the protection of our mobile suits and other weapons, they give us food and some recruits for our troops. There hasn’t been a war between the planets or even among the inhabitants of a planet for centuries. As for Heero…" Her voice trailed off, and she glanced away.
"Heero – well, you see, I only found this out recently, so I’m not sure if it’s true – "
"What? Just say it. I promise I won’t tell anyone." How bad could it be? he wondered. With Heero, pretty bad.
"Heero – he’s – I guess – my brother," she finished reluctantly.
Quatre was silent, staring at her. Finally, he asked, "Does Relena know?"
She shook her head. "She only knows that I’m from Thelnaq, nothing more. She confirmed it with a crew of scientists who were looking at radio signals and such from nearby galaxies, searching for signs of life. They found one that matched the communications signal I receive through my mobile suit coming from the galaxy where I said Thelnaq was located."
"Oh. So you swear you aren’t lying?"
"On my mother’s grave. That means more than it sounds. I found out about Heero when my mother told me from her deathbed."
Quatre studied his shoes. "I’m sorry for doubting you. You don’t seem like the type who’d lie, but after all that’s happened to me…"
Heptamera gave him a crooked half-smile. "That’s all right, though it’s a lot to assume about a literal stranger. You’ve only known me for about – "
A sudden rustling in the bushes caused her to jump to her feet. "What was that?"
A high giggle betrayed their intruder. Poking her head out from between a pair of bushes, a young woman with waist-length blonde hair and strange, split eyebrows chuckled at the expressions on their faces. "Hello, Quatre. Long time no see."
"Hello, Dorothy." Quatre seemed vaguely uncomfortable.
"And who might this be?" she asked, emerging from among the roses. Her light pink gown slipped free of the thorns and rustled as she came closer.
Heptamera felt Quatre’s arm go around her waist as he hissed, "Just play along!" into her ear. Out loud, he said, "This is my girlfriend, Heptamera Xelcon."
A little surprised, Heptamera stammered, "Ah, hello, miss."
Dorothy looked her up and down somewhat suspiciously. "Good evening, Miss Xelcon."
"We really must be going, Dorothy. The music’s just started up, hasn’t it?"
He swept away, pulling Heptamera along with him. Once they were out of earshot, he dropped his arm. "That was too close. I’ve been trying to avoid her for a long time."
"Why? Who is she?"
"Dorothy Catalonia. She used to be madly in love with war, until I convinced her otherwise. Now she’s simply a nuisance, and a hazard when she’s around me. I have a funny feeling that she likes me, but you can never really tell."
"Would you care to dance?"
She opened her mouth to protest, but found herself saying, "Yes. Let’s go." As he pulled her out onto the middle of the dance floor, she thought, What just happened? I’ve never let someone do that to me before. What’s wrong with me? She lost her train of thought when she locked her gaze onto Quatre’s light blue eyes. They seemed so sad, yet there was a genuine glow of happiness to them as he whirled to the music, she following in perfect synchronization, the other dancers moving towards the edges to watch them. For a moment, she forgot about the pain of her memories and the guilt of her past as she gave in to the rush of the violins and the gentleness of Quatre’s movements.
In the middle of the waltz, Quatre caught her gaze, leaned in a little closer, and asked, "So, why precisely are you here?"
She started a little. "To tell you the truth, I’m planning to take Heero’s MS out of storage and check its databases for anything that might give me a clue as to where Heero is. I have to deliver an important note to him."
"The Wing Zero disappeared along with Heero two years ago. None of the Gundams exist anymore, except for in scrap metal."
"Oh. I suppose I’ll just do fly-by reconnaissance scans over the entire planet."
"Good luck with that. Nobody’s seen or heard anything of him for over two years."
As they waltzed past Relena, she couldn’t help but remember that long-ago evening when she had danced with Heero, back when the world had seemed to stand still in the moments before chaos reared its ugly head. Anyone who looked at her would have seen a single tear fall from her eye.
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A man was walking through a field of wildflowers in the midst of a thick forest, clad in a dark blue suit and tie. He stopped in the middle, a small breeze ruffling through his rich brown hair, streaked with dark green, as he turned slowly towards the direction of a woman’s voice. Moments later, she came out of the trees, her wavy black hair streaming out behind her, Prussian blue eyes sparkling, a young boy with the same dark brown hair as his father, without the green streaks, and the same eyes as his mother clinging to her hand. The man offered her his arm, and the three of them walked away together. A little girl with dark green hair and the same blue eyes as the woman ran out of the thick cluster of trees, giggling. She stopped in the middle of the field, bewildered. "Mommy? Daddy? Where are you?"
She sat down among the flowers, tears streaming down her face, bawling. The man and woman never came back. Storm clouds gathered overhead, obscuring the sunlight. Suddenly, lightning cracked overhead, startling the girl out of her tears. She jumped up and started running blindly through the forest, the branches seeming to tear at her dress and hair. Finally, she reached a cliff. Not seeing where she was headed, she suddenly went over the edge and fell down, down, down, without anyone to catch her. She hit rock bottom, the rocks cutting into her skin, and lay still, sure that she was dead. Something lifted her up, and when she let her eyes open a little, a light-haired angel smiled down at her and whispered, "It’s all right. Just go back to sleep."
Heptamera jolted upright, her head pounding, the voice fading from her ears. She took several deep, shaking breaths before she felt it, the prickling on the back of her neck. Someone was in the room with her. Reaching stealthily under the pillow, her hand grasped the cold metal of her gun and pulled it out. Abruptly, she threw the bedclothes off of the bed in an arc, the sheets ensnaring the intruder. She hit the light switch, the gun trained on the figure struggling underneath the sheets as she reached for her cloak and pulled it around her shoulders to hide her nightgown. When he finally emerged, she gasped. "Quatre?!"
He was still dressed in his tuxedo, though he had apparently put on a trench coat for warmth. Quatre opened his mouth to speak when he caught sight of the cold metal barrel pointed at his chest and went pale, throwing up his hands in submission despite the fact that her hand was shaking so badly that she couldn’t have hit the wall. Her fingers went slack, and she heard a muffled thump as the gun hit the floor. She sat on the edge of the bedside table. "You can put your hands down. I’m not going to shoot you."
He dropped his hands and walked around to sit on the bed. "I’m sorry if I startled you, but I thought you were still awake."
She gave him a strange look. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"I saw you walk past me rather quickly in the hallway when I left Relena’s study. She wanted to talk to me about you, and I didn’t leave until about ten minutes ago."
Heptamera quickly covered her mouth before she could scream. When she finally took it away, her face was a mask. "I was sleepwalking?"
"Evidently. I heard you scream about a minute later and I suppose you tripped on something before I came up here, because I found you more or less sprawled on the floor and put you back in bed. You kind of woke up, but you went back to sleep for awhile."
"So why are you…"
"Why am I still here? I wanted to make sure you didn’t do it again and go off the staircase." He looked genuinely concerned.
"Maybe I should start tying myself down to the bed. That’s the fifth time…" she stopped in the middle of her sentence, catching herself before she could say more.
"What were you dreaming about?" he asked softly.
"I don’t know."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
A small jet sat in the middle of a tall field of wild grass somewhere in the middle of China. If one were to get closer, one would see that it was actually a converted mobile suit, specifically a Falconer CTAT 2. Heptamera leaned back in the pilot’s seat, studying the feed from her computer while Quatre watched over her shoulder. "It says here that this entire section of North America has been untouched since A.C. 140," she told him, tracing the spot with her fingernail. "Sounds just like the place Heero would want to be. There are about five other such places, so we’ll check them one by one. I told Relena to come with a pilot and plane ready to pick one of us up when we find him, since this MS can only comfortably hold two people max. I’m flying back myself, and I’m pretty damned sure neither he nor you wants to get crammed into the cargo space, however luxurious it is. Ready to go?"
Quatre sat back in the passenger’s compartment and pulled his flight goggles down over his eyes. "I haven’t done this for two years."
Heptamera rolled her eyes. "You aren’t flying this thing. I, however, am."
"Are you sure you’ll be able to convince him on your own?"
"If I don’t, I’ll understand why he’s so antisocial."
"Bring a gun when you go."
"He’s liable to shoot you, unless you tell him who you are."
"Sure, like that’s going to do me any good. He doesn’t remember me."
"Remind me. Why are you so intent on bringing him back, if he doesn’t want to return?"
"I need to repay Relena for getting me out of trouble somehow. This seems like the best way."
"But trying to bring Heero back against his will is just about as bad as tying a steak around your neck and going to visit a lion’s den. You’ll be dead before you can even blink."
"It sounds to me like he’s hiding from the world, or at least running away from something he can’t look in the face or shoot. If someone doesn’t make him come out and face it, then it’ll get him first. Hell, I’d love to hide in the woods somewhere."
Quatre couldn’t see her face when she spoke, but he could hear the bitter edge to her voice. "Heptamera? Don’t make him angry. Do you understand what ‘omae o korosu’ means?"
"Japanese for ‘I’ll kill you,’ right?"
"Right. If you hear him say that, beat it, and fast."
"I doubt I’ll have to do that."
Quatre was about to protest when something beeped on the dashboard. Heptamera pressed a button, and a screen popped up out of the console. "Hello?"
The screen flickered to life, and the face of Lucrezia Noin appeared. "Good morning, Miss Xelcon. I was just calling because Vice Foreign Minister Darlian told me what you were planning to do today, and I’m letting you know that we need you for something else. Heero cannot be found if he doesn’t want to be. We’ve received reports of an OZ/Romefeller resurgence group that calls itself ‘OZ Gen-X.’ I trust that you already know the history of OZ and Romefeller?"
"Somebody’s trying to bring them back. We need you and Quatre to go to New Oxford University in England and check it out. It seems that their leader or at least some branch of the organization is operating there. Since Minister Darlian is already enrolled there and you are attending with her as her bodyguard, that eliminates any questions as to your cover story. For, Quatre, however, we still need to come up with something. Come to the Berlin Headquarters at 1600 hours, and we’ll have both your profiles ready."
Heptamera nodded. "Mission accepted."
Quatre was startled by her choice of words. "Heero used to say that exact same thing…" he muttered to himself.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
The next day, a black limousine stopped in front of the main building of New Oxford University five minutes before classes started, drawing stares and polite curiosity from the students. An impeccably dressed butler stepped out and opened the passenger side door. Relena ducked her head and climbed out, dressed in the school uniform, a navy blue blazer and skirt with the school’s crest on the lapels, her backpack in hand. Quatre’s blond head poked out next, a satchel slung over her shoulder, his suit nearly identical to Relena’s, except that he wore long pants, a black tie, and black dress shoes. Heptamera was the last to get out, her uniform a duplicate of Relena’s, the strap of her satchel arranged across her torso. She glanced up at the towering main building of the university and caught a glimpse of someone with short, dark brown hair and sharp, Prussian blue eyes staring down at them, just before he disappeared into the shadows. "Who was that?" she wonde! red.
She didn’t have much time to wonder, because her hand was suddenly grasped by that of a tall, slightly pudgy man who wore a bright smile as he shook her hand. "Hello, Miss Xelcon! Welcome to Oxford. I trust that you and Mr. Winner and Miss Darlian will have a fine time here!"
He patted Quatre’s shoulder heartily and beamed at Relena. Several of the students stared at them, jaws dropping when they heard Quatre’s and Relena’s surnames. They began whispering among themselves as the three newcomers advanced towards the school. Heptamera felt somebody tap her on the shoulder and whirled around, her hand on her hidden gun, to find a tall young man with dark red hair and light blue eyes wearing the school uniform, his hand pulled back. "A jumpy one, hmm?"
"Never underestimate those you don’t know," Heptamera replied, straightening up. "What’s your name?"
"Wayne Adanerhsuk. And you are…?"
"Heptamera Xelcon." She held out her hand, expecting him to shake it. Instead, he waved her away, disdainful "I do not shake hands."
"Creep," she muttered, walking away, aware of his eyes drilling into her back. She slipped behind a tree and out of sight, closed her eyes, and sought his mental voice out from the babble of thoughts around her. He wasn’t terribly hard to find – his happened to be the loudest. < So, that girl thinks that she can get the best of me? Good thing I gave her my pseudonym… ha, as if she thinks that I don’t know who she is. Relena Darlian’s got herself one fine protector this time, in place of Heero… but, not to worry. Heero should have never surfaced again, especially here, of all places. I’ll get the three of them yet, and that Winner kid, too… >
Someone coughed in front of her and Heptamera opened her eyes to see Quatre standing just inches away from face. "Hey, Heptamera, we’re going to be late to class if you don’t start moving."
"Oh, sorry." As she followed him across the street and up the stairs to where Relena was standing in the doorway of the Mathematics Collegium, she plucked something off the back of her jacket and swiftly jabbed it into the leg of a passing library cart. As the infinitesimal bug Michael Kushrenada had planted on her headed off for the silence of the book stacks, the Spymaster of the Intergalactic Intelligence Bureau followed Quatre and Relena into their Calculus class.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Relena sat alone on a bench beneath one of the trees on the front lawn of the History College, quietly chewing a peanut butter sandwich. She could see Quatre and Heptamera sitting on the front steps, watching her eat and talking about something as they ate their lunches. She felt relatively safe here, with the rings upon rings of Colleges and Collegiums that radiated out from the center of the university, where the main building stood. It was like a castle, really, with multiple walls, each one stronger than the one before it. She could finally relax.
Without warning, someone shoved her from the side, and she landed on the ground with a thud, Heptamera on top of her, just as something whizzed past them and buried itself in the tree and two answering shots rang out. "Sorry about that, Relena," she apologized quickly, getting back up and pulling her gun out of its holster under her jacket. She fired a single shot into the air and took off running. Relena could see Quatre already racing across the roof of the college, his gun drawn and aimed at something. She glanced behind her and saw that the bark of the tree had splintered from where the sniper’s bullet had penetrated it. If she had remained where she was… Relena shuddered at the thought.
The university security soon arrived and climbed up to the roof. Within minutes of their arrival, Quatre and Heptamera returned, faces drawn. "Thank God for Lucrezia. If she hadn’t told the dean why we’re here, we’d be in handcuffs right now," Heptamera muttered.
Relena asked, "What happened? Who was it?"
"Someone tried to murder you, evidently, one of the professors with a 16mm rifle. By his nametag, he was a German instructor. He won’t be teaching anytime soon, though," Quatre told her, looking slightly worried.
"Why? What’s wrong?"
"He’s dead. Someone shot him through the heart before Quatre got up to the roof, someone who fired a shot at the same time Quatre did, though Quatre was aiming to injure, not kill. I only fired as a signal to Quatre that you were safe," Heptamera replied, knocking the spent casings out of her gun and dropping them into her pocket. They both took one of Relena’s arms and escorted her back to her dorm room.
On the third floor of the half-constructed building across the street from the History College, a young man with tousled dark brown hair and glacial Prussian blue eyes quickly packed a rifle into a violin case, locking it shut. "So it has begun again…" he whispered, gracefully slipping away down the stairs.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Heptamera sat on the edge of the bed, watching Relena unpack her suitcase, which her butler, Pagan, had brought up that morning after they’d been dropped off at the main building. She had switched rooms the minute that they’d reached the women’s dorms, allowing herself to share a room with Relena, ignoring the grumbles of the university maintenance crew as they moved in another bed. Now, she watched Relena pull a teddy bear and picture frame out of the depths of her suitcase, placing them on top of the chest of drawers. She caught Relena’s eye and said, "That’s a cute bear."
Relena blushed a little. "Heero gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday."
Heptamera stood and walked over, glancing at the picture. Her eyes widened and she picked it up, staring at it. "This is Heero?"
"Yes. I got a picture of him when he wasn’t looking, back when he was enrolled at my school in the Sanc Kingdom." There was a hint of misery in her voice.
"You miss him more than you care to tell, don’t you?" Heptamera asked softly, replacing the picture on the dresser.
"Yes." She looked away.
Heptamera moved to stand by Relena, her hand on Relena’s shoulder. "I know how it is to not see someone for so long that it’s like they don’t exist anymore, except for in memories. I’m sure that he’ll come back someday."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
When Relena, Heptamera, and Quatre reached their Japanese literature class in the Language Arts College, the room was nearly empty except for two people. They picked seats near the middle, Heptamera on one side, Quatre on the other. About forty-five more people filed in before class was slated to begin. The professor walked in five minutes late, took a look around, and muttered something like "not worthwhile" before taking the roll.
"Present." Heptamera concealed her irritation at his condescending voice by propping up her textbook in front of her face.
Quatre’s jaw dropped. "What’s she doing here?" he hissed, a little too loudly. Dorothy turned around and saw him. He shrank down in his seat, groaning slightly.
"Present." Andrew was a blond boy with freckles all over his face and a rather sadistic gleam in his eyes who was sitting right next to Wayne.
"Present." Relena looked nervous, Heptamera reflected, after her near assassination the day before. She was keeping her head down and trying to shrink out of sight.
Five people later: "Vladimir Gray?
"Present." Vladimir seemed to emanate smugness, his pug nose turned up at everyone in the room. He occupied the seat on the other side of Wayne.
About three people later: "Carson Hiroshi?"
Nobody answered. The professor cleared his throat. "Carson Hiroshi?"
Finally, a frigid voice answered from the back of the room. "Present."
Heptamera turned around to see whom it was and felt as if she was looking into a slightly distorted mirror. Carson looked almost exactly like her, except that he was a boy, his hair was dark brown and cropped short, and his face was a little different around the nose and ears. Could it be Heero under a false name? she wondered, watching for a flicker of emotion in those cold, expressionless blue eyes exactly like her own. She tried to read his thoughts but, for the first time in her life, she hit an impenetrable wall. She couldn’t get through, no matter what she tried.
Heptamera’s mind drifted off near the middle of the list. She snapped back to attention around thirty or thirty-one people later.
"Present." Quatre jerked a little when he heard the girl’s last name. Is she related to Ambassador Une? he thought, staring at the young woman seated two rows before him. Her long, curly brown hair was done up to look like cat’s ears with a handful of curls hanging from their bases.
"Present." Pieter looked distinctly malnourished for a boy of nineteen, his shock of black hair making his face seem all the more pale. He was seated behind Wayne.
"Present." Quatre could feel someone’s eyes drilling into the back of his neck and turned around to see the young man called Carson staring at him. He looked away after a moment, leaving Quatre to wonder why he looked so much like Heero, yet didn’t.
"Good. Did I miss anybody? No? All right. Welcome to Japanese Literature 103. I am your professor, Mr. Kinomoto. You may call me Professor Kinomoto, Mr. Kinomoto, Professor K, Mr. K, or that annoying voice in my head telling me to pay attention."
Nobody laughed. He cleared his throat. "I will be pairing you up today with some of your classmates at random. You will make a list of Japanese literature that you have either heard of or that you have read."
He went down the roll, jumping around erratically, accidentally assigning the same person to two people about five times. Relena was paired with Pieter, Quatre with Kira, and Heptamera with Carson. Poor Relena, Heptamera thought as she stood up to sit by her partner. Instead, she found herself face-to-face with him. She sat down in her seat again. "Hello. I’m Heptamera. You must be Carson."
He nodded coldly as he sat down. Heptamera stifled a depressed sigh and pulled out her notebook. "What’s that?" the young man asked, pointing at the double insignia of the Intergalactic Peacekeeping Council and the Intergalactic Strike Force embossed on the upper left hand corner of the cover.
"Oh, that’s just the crest of my old school," she ad-libbed.
She pulled a pen out of her satchel and began to write. Carson watched her with well-concealed interest. "What’s that say?"
"It’s just our names. Why?" Heptamera was puzzled by his question.
"Doesn’t look like any language I’ve ever seen."
Heptamera glanced down at her paper and suppressed a squeak of surprise. Without knowing it, she had been writing in Thelnaqian shorthand. "Oops. I think I’ll start over."
As she fumbled with the pages, she caught sight of Quatre conversing with Kira over something on their paper. Relena seemed to be ill at ease with Pieter, who looked more like a corpse compared to the flush of Relena’s skin. Finally, she flipped the page successfully.
"So, what do you know about Japanese lit?" she asked, trying to be friendly.
Carson took the pen from her and silently jotted down a list of almost fifteen titles. Heptamera raised an eyebrow. "If you’ve already read all of that, why are you taking this class?"
"I haven’t read all of them," he replied monotonously, returning the pen.
Heptamera scribbled the names of the ten or so classics she had read on Thelnaq. Professor Kinomoto walked by, and she handed him the sheet. "Done? Good." He read the list, whistling under his breath. "I can see that the two of you are going to be far ahead of the others. Very good." He walked away.
Carson leaned back in his chair and stared straight ahead. Heptamera stared at his profile, remembering a portrait of her late father at the age of twenty hanging in the royal mansion. Carson had the exact same hair and face as her father, without his bottomless black eyes that seemed to stare into her soul whenever she walked past the painting. But her father’s eyes held warmth and friendliness in them as well, while Carson’s were icy and lacked emotion. He had her mother’s eyes, and her own…
"What are you looking at?"
Heptamera pulled herself back to reality with a start. Carson had been watching her as she zoned out. "Nothing. I was just wondering – are you from the colonies?"
His eyes narrowed a little. "I’m not disclosing that."
Heptamera raised an eyebrow. "Then I suppose I’ll just have to tell you about yourself. It’s a hobby I picked up along the way."
"Go ahead." He leaned back and crossed his arms, his face frozen in a grim expression.
She studied him for a moment longer. "All right. You are of Japanese descent and you were born on the L1 colony cluster about nineteen years ago and came to Earth recently – let’s say about four years ago. This is your first year in college, and you have not had much schooling before, except for martial training, which hardly counts, since it involves learning how to use a gun to kill your enemies and how to survive. You tend not to show any emotion at all, though it’s obvious that you must have feelings. In other words, you would make the perfect soldier, provided with a mobile suit and a cause. Your past, or lack of knowledge of it, troubles you deeply, and, again, you do not show it."
He cocked an eyebrow. "Interesting…"
She could feel his cloaked surprise in her mind. Folding her arms, she leaned a little closer to him, as if to look at something behind him. Speaking without moving her lips, her voice barely above a whisper, she asked, "What, no ‘omae o korosu,’ Heero?"
He simply sat there, his face frozen. "My name isn’t Heero."
"Oh, sure it isn’t. Wait’ll Relena sees you, she’s gonna flip at how much you’ve changed," she retorted sarcastically, still using ventriloquism.
"Relena?" he asked, the corner of his mouth twitching a little.
"Don’t you ever listen to the roll call? Relena’s name was only about nine people before yours."
"So what…" he muttered, glancing away.
"So what? How careless can a guy be? One of these days, you’re going to learn the hard way that someone does care about you, and that you can’t live your life running away from things, disguising it in the denial that you have more than one purpose."
He was silent, still staring off into the distance. She sighed and sat back in her seat again. The professor had walked back to the front of the class. "By tomorrow, I want each partnership to have checked out three books that you did not list that I will assign. After you have received your assignments, class is dismissed."
He proceeded up the rows, handing out slips of paper. Heptamera took it from him and looked over it. "Hey, Carson, which ones do you want to look for?"
Carson glanced at the sheet. "We’ll look for them together. Meet me at the main library at 1400 hours."
She nodded, shoving her notebook and pen back into her shoulder bag. Suddenly, she remembered about the letter her mother had asked her to deliver, and straightened up to tell him to wait. Heptamera found herself facing an empty chair. He had already disappeared out the door without so much as a "see you later."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Relena and Quatre met up with Heptamera at the bottom of the steps of the main library, the lively crowds of students and residents making them shout over the din. "So, how is it working with one of the most antisocial people in the class?" Quatre teased.
"You should know. You’ve worked with people like that yourself."
"Need I list them? It’s rather short."
He grinned. "Go ahead."
"Trowa Barton, Chang Wu-fei, and Heero Yuy."
At the sound of Heero’s name, Relena flinched visibly. "Sorry," Heptamera whispered, Relena’s unspoken pain resounding through her head.
Footsteps sounded behind her. Heptamera turned around to see the girl with her hair done up to look like cat’s ears standing a few meters away, looking up at the stone façade. "I’ll never get over how big this damned place is," she muttered. Advancing towards them, she held out her hand to Relena, who shook it. "I’m Kira, Quatre’s partner. You must be Relena Darlian."
Relena nodded slightly. Kira reached out to Heptamera. "And you are…?"
Heptamera grasped her hand warmly. "My name is Heptamera Xelcon."
To her surprise, Kira laughed. "I’ve heard of you, from my cousin."
"Ambassador Une. She works for Preventer. According to her, she saw you at the government ball last week. She said that you were a really good dancer."
Heptamera relaxed. "Oh. Well, tell her ‘thanks’ for the compliment from me next time you see her."
Kira smiled and pulled Quatre into the library, leaving Relena and Heptamera out on the front steps. Someone shouted across the street, and they looked up to see Wayne, Wendy, and Pieter crossing the road, trying to avoid being hit by the throngs of bicycles and the occasional car that zipped past. They hurried along the sidewalk and joined a crowd of people headed in their direction. Wendy and Pieter passed them without a word of greeting, but Wayne paused for a moment when he saw Heptamera, then walked on slowly. She watched him, eyes narrowed. Suddenly, he bumped into Relena extremely hard, and she stumbled into the path of an oncoming car.
Before Heptamera could so much as take a single step, someone had dashed out from the shadows of the library and shoved Relena out of harm’s way. Her rescuer dropped to the ground, and the car rolled over him harmlessly. Heptamera rushed to Relena’s side, glancing up only long enough to memorize the license plate of the car as it sped from the scene of the accident. The young man stood up and walked towards them through the crowd that had gathered in the middle of the street, perfectly calm. "Are you all right, miss?" he asked, taking off the sunglasses he had been wearing.
Relena stared at him. "Heero…" she whispered.
He finally noticed her face. "Relena?"
Heptamera dragged both of them out of the street, into the library, and sat them both down on a couch in a secluded corner. "There’s time for a reunion later. Did either you see who pushed Relena?" she demanded.
Relena shook her head. Heero simply stared at her, tight-lipped.
"It was Wayne. I saw him do it. That won’t help us make a case against him, because nobody else saw it. He made it look like he just nudged her, and he can always say that he was in the library with his partner. Besides, I’ve unfortunately made it a little too obvious that I don’t like him, and he’ll use that against any evidence I have to offer, except for maybe the car. I know its license plate number, and the probability that it’s been abandoned in a ditch somewhere is pretty high. You two didn’t see anything, so that doesn’t help either. For now, we’re going to pretend nothing happened."
"I’ll kill him…" Heero muttered under his breath.
"If he doesn’t get you first. He wants you dead, too. I overheard him talking to that friend of his, Andrew, when I passed him on the street two days ago. He knows who you really are, just as I do. I suggest that we continue pretending that we don’t know you for now, since we don’t want to arouse suspicion. But you’ve seen what that guy’s capable of doing, and I have a feeling that’s not his worst. We have to band together to protect ourselves, or we won’t stand a chance against whatever he has planned."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Wayne Adanerhsuk walked along the deserted alleyway behind the History College, alone with his thoughts. Suddenly, he heard footfalls behind him and whirled around. Relaxing, he walked towards the newcomer, a cold smile gracing his thin lips. "Good evening, Seize. I was wondering if you’d show."
"You are a fool, Kushrenada. Do you really think that I wouldn’t keep my word?" the shadowy figure hissed.
"I might never know. After all, you are part of Black Cobra."
"Never mind that. How did your plan work out?"
Michael scowled. "The sniper had a clear shot at Minister Darlian yesterday afternoon, but her bodyguard shove her out of the way and the bullet hit the tree. The assassin was killed by a shot from an unknown gunman across the street and we couldn’t get him off the roof before Darlian’s other bodyguard got to the roof. This afternoon, I did manage to push the girl into the street when one of her bodyguards had gone into the library, but Nikolai failed to hit Darlian with the car. Heero Yuy, the guy who used to pilot the Wing Zero, jumped out of the alley and pushed her out of the way."
"He didn’t get run over, either. He hit the pavement and let the car roll over him. Damn that bastard."
"So the girl has protectors… Did you get a clear look at her bodyguards?"
"Yes. One of them is the former pilot of the Gundam Sandrock, Quatre Winner, also head of Winner Enterprises. The other is a girl with dark green hair, actually quite pretty, which hides the fact that she’s an extremely strong fighter. She also looks almost exactly like Heero."
Seize paled to point of near translucency. He grabbed Michael by the collar and hoisted him off of his feet. "What is her name?" he demanded.
Michael looked surprised. "I didn’t really hear it. It’s something like Helen or Tamara."
"Heptamera…" Seize hissed, letting him go. "So she’s here, too…"
"You know her?"
"You could call us… acquaintances." Seize replied, his voice sounding sadistically pleased. "Now, to business," he continued, dismissive. "The mobile suits that you asked us to bring are being shipped to the northern part of England, an area that I believe was formerly known as the Sanc Kingdom."
"How ironic. Darlian was born there. It used to be a pacifist nation, until it was destroyed."
"As they all should be."
"I shall send some of my men to pick them up. Thank you, Seize. We’ll meet again next week, same time, same place." Michael hurried away.
Seize glared after him. "Lousy rabble-rouser. He can’t see that there’s a far grander scheme at work. But he’s simply a pawn, just a pawn… I’ll get you back for what you’ve done to me soon enough, Princess Heptamera…"
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Heero sat under a tree on the front lawn of the main building before class, twirling a pen between his fingers, his knees drawn up to his chest and his book bag sitting next to him. Someone touched his shoulder, and he looked up to see Relena standing beside him, two locks of her hair braided and pinned up behind her head like old times. "Hello, Carson."
She sat down next to him, giving him a wide berth. "So, what have you been doing for the past two years?" she asked quietly.
For some odd reason, Heero felt like telling her everything, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything. Perhaps some other time, some time when he didn’t feel lost in himself, in his memories. "Nothing much. Just being… normal."
Someone shouted Relena’s name. He glanced up to see Quatre hurrying towards them, carrying his violin case. Quatre paused when he saw Heero. "Oh, hello, Carson."
Relena gazed at the violin case. "What’s that for?"
"Oh, some of the guys from our English lit class wanted to start a music club. I told them that I played violin, and they asked me to join. Meetings start today."
He was still staring at Heero. "You seem familiar, like someone I used to know."
"I am someone you used to know," Heero muttered.
Relena whispered, "It’s Heero, Quatre."
Quatre smiled, surprising both of them. "I thought so."
A voice cut in from behind the tree. "May I join this discussion, or is it humans only?"
Relena started, then relaxed a little. "Heptamera, don’t scare me like that."
Heptamera sidled out from where she had been hidden, grinning. Heero raised an eyebrow. "‘Humans?’"
"It you haven’t figured it out already, I’m not exactly from around here."
"She’s from another planet, Carson," Relena told him. He merely grunted in reply.
Quatre frowned a little at Heero. "What made you leave Preventer so suddenly?"
Relena gawked at Quatre and Heero. "Since when were you with Preventer?" Heptamera asked, perturbed.
"Since that hostage situation at Relena’s mansion two years ago."
"That was you?" Relena asked.
"Yeah, that was me. I left soon afterwards, though."
Quatre rolled his eyes. "Too much of a loner. We all left, eventually, except for Wu-fei. He practically lives there."
Suddenly, Heptamera stiffened. Her mind had caught a wisp of an unknown thought pattern coming from above them, in the tree. What the hell…? she thought. Trees can’t think! She darted to the other side of the tree. Reaching into her pockets, she pulled out a pair of thick leather gloves and pulled them on. She glanced up at the overhanging branches and grabbed the lowest one, hoisting herself up. After a moment, something hit one of the higher branches with a muffled thump. Relena and Heero scrambled to their feet. "What’s going on?" Relena cried.
A limp, male body fell out of the tree, landing hard on the protruding roots with a groan. Heptamera dropped down, feet first, and landed in a crouch. "Pressure point," she said, standing up and brushing herself off. She reached down and pulled out a revolver with a silencer attached to the muzzle out of the inside pocket of his jacket, only touching it with her gloves. "He was trying to shoot Relena from up there." She stared at Relena thoughtfully. "That’s three attempts in as many days. You’ve got more people after your life in a week than I do in a month. Now that is impressive."
"I wouldn’t put it that way…" Quatre muttered.
Heptamera ignored him and tugged at a sheaf of papers that had been dislodged from the higher branches of the tree. "Let’s see… his name is Yves Sepian, apparently part of a group called – oh, shit."
"What?" Quatre asked.
She motioned him over and showed him what she hadn’t read aloud. He paled slightly. "So the rumors are true…"
"What is it?" Relena asked.
"Preventer business. You guys go ahead to class." She looked at Heero questioningly. "You do have Physics right now, don’t you?"
"No, I actually don’t have a class right now. I’ll go with Relena."
She nodded distractedly and hurried off towards the main office of the dorms, Quatre close on her heels.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Heptamera and Quatre settled into a private, glassed-in, soundproof corner booth with the videophone. After she checked for bugs, Heptamera dialed Lucrezia’s extension while Quatre snapped pictures of the papers with the miniature camera Sally had given him specifically for the mission. The phone rang several times before the recording machine picked up. Heptamera left a message and handed the phone to Quatre. He called Sally’s number but couldn’t get through. Disgusted, Quatre left a message and hung up. "Wait a sec. They gave us someone else’s phone number, too," Heptamera reminded him, pulling a business card out of her satchel.
He glanced at the name on the card. "Hakim Ione? Why did they give you his phone number?"
"I don’t know. Why, do you know him?"
"He’s the Head of Security for Winner Enterprises. Of course I know him!"
"Maybe he’s got something to do with Preventer, too."
Quatre raised an eyebrow. "Hmm. I might as well call."
"Don’t forget to call Lucrezia ‘Lucy.’"
This time, the phone rang twice before a jovial Arabian man in his late twenties picked up. "Hello? Quatre-sama? What’s going on? Where have you been?"
"Whoa, slow down. I’m fine. Is Melanie doing all right?"
"Yeah, I suppose. She took over after you left."
"Good. Look, do you know someone named Lucy?"
"She told me to call you if we couldn’t get through to her. This is a Code…" Quatre mentally ran down the list of code words that Sally had made him memorize. "… a Code Webster."
Hakim suddenly became serious. "Do you have a fax machine?"
"We’re sending it right now." Heptamera began feeding the papers through the machine, which clicked and hummed contentedly.
Hakim picked up the first sheet that had come through on his end and skimmed over it. "This looks bad… Burn the fax copies and have the originals and film in a envelope. Our photographer will be at the corner of Fifth and Mason at 2000 hours. You’ll know each other. Do you have any messages you want to pass on to Lucy?"
Heptamera motioned for Quatre to take over the fax machine. She moved to sit in front of the videophone. "Yeah. This is Falconer. I know Lucy’s an animal lover, and she wanted to keep tabs on our kitten. Tell her that our kitten has been feeling ill, and she’s thrown up about three times, but we got her to a vet and they gave us two bottles of pills. The kitten’s puppy friend came by – apparently he’s willing to take care of her while we’re out. Oh, and tell her that we don’t know if the vet bills are overpriced or not."
"All right. I’ll tell her."
Heptamera waited for Quatre to finish with the faxes before she hung up. Quatre looked at her inquisitively. "What the hell did you just say?"
She took a small, palm-sized box out of her satchel, which turned out to be a handheld computer, switched it on, and typed it out.
Relena is the kitten, feeling ill means being stalked, throwing up means an assassination attempt, getting her to a vet and giving her two bottles of pills means that we foiled the assassination attempt, twice with someone’s help, the puppy is Heero, vet bills are the papers we just sent, and overpricing refers to decoy papers.
"Do you always talk like this over the phone?" Quatre asked.
"Hell, yes. It’s a pain, though. Do you know how hard it is to talk in riddles?"
"So why do you do it?"
"It’s a hobby of mine. Besides, it’s always kept those nosy chambermaids back at home from understanding what I was saying to my friends over the phone."
She erased the notes on the screen and turned off the computer, putting it back into her bag. Pulling out a cigarette lighter from the inside pocket of her jacket, she placed it on top of the phone and shuffled the fax copies into a neat pile in front of her. At the incredulous look on Quatre’s face, she rolled her eyes. "I had to have something to do in my spare time that didn’t involved fencing, practicing the piano, or acting extremely violent towards a bunch of test dummies."
Snapping the lighter open, she flicked the starter and held the small blaze underneath the sheaf of fax copies, watching them curl up and blacken as the flames licked at the ink.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
A cold wind blew down from the north that evening. The streetlights illuminated the pavement on the corner of Fifth Street and Mason Avenue, empty but for the occasional stray cat or dog that dashed from sidewalk to sidewalk, no longer having to play Russian roulette with the bicycles, cars, and foot traffic of the day. Something moved in the shadows of a nearby pawnshop, and a figure clad in a long black cloak, the hood thrown over its head, silently slipped into a pool of light. It tapped the pavement with its foot three times, then waited. Two answering taps came from across the street, in an alleyway behind a restaurant. Something darted out from the darkness and to the street corner where the first person stood. "Well?" the second individual asked.
"Women are from Thelnaq, men are from Juxtapose."
"Juxtapose is a non-existent civilization, Thelnaq is alive and well, though blackened by storm clouds of conflict. You must be the shop clerk."
"And you must be the photographer." The ‘photographer’ motioned towards a door situated between the pawnshop and a department store. They slipped inside and locked the door behind them. Suddenly, someone tapped the ‘shop clerk’ on the shoulder. Dropping to the ground, the ‘shop clerk’ spun around, kicking the intruder’s legs out from under it.
Heptamera stood up and threw back the hood of her cloak. She put her hand on her hip holster, drawing out her gun. "Who are you?"
The intruder stood up, hands raised, face concealed by a balaclava. The ‘photographer’ intervened. "He’s my backup, in case something goes wrong."
The ‘photographer’ dropped the hood of her cloak. "Kira?" Heptamera asked.
"One and the same." She smiled ironically. "I guess dangerous work runs in the family. My cousin recommended me for the job."
"Then who’s this?"
The intruder pulled off his balaclava, revealing a shock of light brown hair and dark blue eyes. "I’m Shadow Taylor. Aren’t you in my Calculus class?"
"Yes… and in your Advanced English class, and in your Physics class. Did they purposely assign you to half of the same classes that I have with Relena?"
"Yeah. Kira’s schedule covers the other classes.
"So they don’t think that I’m capable of taking care of it?"
"No, they do think that you’re capable of carrying out the mission. We’re here to watch out for Minister Darlian while you’re on the job."
"Well, we have to get back, then. She only has Quatre and Carson with her right now, and I'm afraid that’s not enough. By the way, what am I supposed to do with the film and originals?"
"Bury them in a shoebox somewhere safe. We’ll come back for them when we need them," Kira replied.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Quatre and Heptamera strolled along the sunlit boulevard that led to the house where his music club was meeting for the third week of rehearsals. "Are you sure that they wouldn’t mind having me along?" queried Heptamera, tossing her head to flip her bangs out of her eyes.
"Sure, they won’t. They said themselves that they need a pianist."
"But don’t you…?"
"I don’t play the piano very much anymore, and, besides, I’m the violinist."
Heptamera sensed someone watching them from above and glanced up, scanning the rooftops. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a flash of light red near a balcony, but by the time she had turned towards it, it was gone. "Funny, that girl Wendy has light red hair…" she mumbled.
"What was that?" asked Quatre.
"Nothing." She closed her eyes and tipped her face up to the warmth of the early spring sunlight. Letting her mental ear tune in to the buzz of thoughts around her, she found the voice she was looking for. < So, Xelcon, you presume that you can wrench the glory of Romefeller and OZ out of Michael’s grasp? Oh, what a fool you are, you and your little friends. But you’ll get your dues soon, very soon. Those who oppose us shall curse the day that we rise from the ashes once more… Ah, how fortunate that Michael is finally letting me meet his supplier tonight… he trusts me, yes, he trusts me! I, Wendy, who would kill to be with him! Oh, Michael, you don’t know how I care for you… >
Heptamera jolted herself back into consciousness and stared straight into Quatre’s anxious blue eyes. He was holding her up; apparently, he’d caught her just as she was about to fall. "Are you all right?" he asked, the alarm evident in his voice.
"I’m all right. Sorry about scaring you." She let him pull her back onto her feet.
"Do you always have those strange trances? That’s the fourth one since we got here. One of these days, I’m afraid there won’t be someone to catch you."
She stared at him, stunned by his choice of words. Eventually, she said, "I – it’s all right, Quatre. Don’t worry about it."
They continued on down the street, Quatre’s arm around her waist. Upon reaching the house, Quatre rang the doorbell. Heptamera nudged him in the ribs. "What did you just do?"
"I… rang the doorbell. Why?" he asked, puzzled.
She stared at him. "What’s a doorbell?"
"You don’t even know what a doorbell is? Boy, you’re weird," a feminine voice sneered from behind them.
Wendy glided past them haughtily, purposely bumping against Heptamera roughly, and swept through the door, which had just opened. Quatre had to restrain Heptamera from attacking the girl. "Calm down! It’s all right."
Heptamera dropped her fists. "Fine. But next time she tries something like that, she’s going to get it."
"What’d she ever do you?" he asked, worried.
"Nothing yet. But she’s headed in that direction." Heptamera growled under her breath, the venom in her voice so poisonous that Quatre stared at her in surprise.
They went inside, and the door shut behind them.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Wendy climbed out of the window of her dorm room at midnight, shinnied down the drainpipe, and jumped to the ground. She ran down the street, her light footsteps barely audible on the concrete. Beneath the beech tree on the front lawn of the main library, several blocks down from the dorm, Heptamera watched her pass, concealed in the shadows. Once Wendy had turned the corner, Heptamera saluted to the silhouette of a pair of chimneys on the roof of the building across the street and slid down from the branches of the tree, pulling a small radio receiver out of her pocket. A pair of dark shapes dashed across the roof and scattered, both of them following the girl in the streets. Above her, Heptamera could hear a third person begin to move along the same route. Placing the earphones over her head and turning the radio on, she fiddled with several of the dials before she found the proper channel. A small white dot appeared on the screen, blinking as it moved thr! ough the bright green map of Oxford’s streets. Three more dots, one pink, one blue, and one orange appeared, trailing behind her by about fifty feet.
Heptamera turned up the volume so she could hear Wendy’s footfalls as she ran, the miniscule bug unknowingly pinned to her skirt, just above the hem. Heptamera had managed to stick it onto Wendy’s dress during the music club meeting that morning when the girl wasn’t paying attention. Hitting the button labeled "record/transmit," she listened as the girl came to stop. "Michael?" Wendy whispered.
The voice of the boy she knew as Wayne Adanerhsuk came through. "Wendy. I thought I told you stay in your room."
"But Michael, I…"
"I’ve already got enough to worry about, with Xelcon and her friends watching my every move. I’ll let you come this time, but only because I’m already running late."
The dot turned down an alleyway about three blocks from the dorms and, for five minutes, traced an erratic path through the darkened streets, occasionally doubling back or looping around a block a couple of times, the only audible sounds breathing and echoing footsteps. Eventually, they reached their destination, which Heptamera pinned down as the alley running between Barker Avenue and Main Street. Michael muttered, "Where is he?"
There was a sharp gasp from Wendy as something landed with a light thump on the ground and the rustle of silk. "Who the hell is that?" came rough voice, followed by the click of a safety being snapped off.
"She’s one of my agents, Seize. This is Private Wendy Zephyr."
Heptamera’s blood ran cold at the name ‘Seize.’ "No. He can’t be…"
She could hear the gun being put away. "Excuse me for my rudeness, miss. Well, Kushrenada, how did it go?" Again, Heptamera felt a chill run up her spine at the name ‘Kushrenada.’ He couldn’t be related to Treize – could he? she thought.
"We failed again. Yves Sepian didn’t succeed in shooting Darlian in the head like we planned. He was a fool, assuming that they couldn’t see him in the tree. Right now, he’s sitting in jail, awaiting charges. I haven’t had the time to bail him out yet because of training. Apparently, Xelcon and her friends got the drop on him, and they got a copy of our plans, too."
"We promptly changed them right after we got word of his arrest. Unfortunately, we’re going have to push the date forward."
"Do you have sufficient troops to man the mobile suits I delivered?"
"Yes. Our numbers are up to fifty right now. They’ve all been training for about three months, though they’ve only had actual mobile suits to practice with for the last two weeks. However, they have proven to be quite proficient at piloting."
"Good. I shall have my space fortress in the area between the L2 and L3 colony clusters prepared to receive your troops when the battle is finished and you have taken over the government in Brussels. Now, what do you intend to do about Darlian? We still need that meddler out of the way."
Michael chuckled. "In about five more minutes, she’s due to have a little accident. Apparently, she’ll lose her balance and fall out of her window, suffering major trauma to her head and spine that, upon entering the hospital, will be deemed fatal."
Heptamera froze. She pulled another radio out of her pocket and, turning it on, tapped the speaker lightly. She was about to call the three spies back when someone touched her shoulder. Whirling around, she found herself face-to-face with Vladimir Gray, his fist headed straight for her nose. Ducking, she brought her knee up in a sudden jerk, hitting him in a tender spot. Crumpling, he hit the ground with a groan. Picking up her radio from where she had dropped it, Heptamera hissed, "Quatre! Kira! Shadow! Get back here n–"
Something hit the back of her head with tremendous force, knocking her to the ground, where she lay next to Vladimir, unconscious. He gawked at his intended victim’s fallen form, then looked up. For a moment, he thought the girl on the ground had somehow risen to her feet within the space of a second. He quickly realized that the young woman standing over him, in the process of shoving her gun back into her hip holster, had long, raven hair and onyx-colored eyes. "Get back to your room, kid. You’re no longer needed here. Go on, get out of here."
When he had disappeared, she turned to stare at Heptamera. Lifting her foot, she ground her heel into the radio receiver, snapping it in half.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
An odd crackling noise came from Seize’s belt, startling Michael and Wendy. He unhooked his radio and brought it up to his ear. "This is Cobra Leader. What’s going on?"
"Cobra Leader, this is the Arachnid Double. Target A has been successfully rendered immobile. Now proceeding to Target B’s quarters."
"Good. Report back to me when your mission is accomplished."
"Yes, sir." The signal went dead.
"Who was that?" asked Michael.
"None of your business, Kushrenada. When do you intend to launch your attack?"
"Two weeks from now. After we annihilate the government, the Preventer agents will mass here, where they’ve stored all of their weapons and such. Little do they know that we’ll be here to welcome them. We already have the bomb planted in the meeting place – all it takes is the push of a button, and the ESUN Government is gone for good."
"And how are you going to arrange this meeting?"
"The death of Vice Foreign Minister Darlian will suffice. She is the de facto leader."
"And if she does not die?"
"We shall assassinate the President of the ESUN."
Seize smiled, his face hidden by the shadows. "Ah, you aim high, my friend."
He glanced at Wendy, scrutinizing her face. "May I have a word with Private Zephyr for a moment, alone?"
Michael was taken aback. "Why, certainly…"
Seize motioned towards the other end of the alley. Wendy followed him. Out of Michael’s earshot, Seize asked, "Are you acquainted with a woman named Rolanda Diers?"
"Yes. She’s my mother."
"She is also mine." Seize paused for a moment to let it sink in. "You look almost exactly like her. I always thought that she’d survived the Purge of Tristannolarq on Thelnaq, even when so many others didn’t. Is she well?"
"I suppose, if you call being dead ‘well.’" She shrugged.
Whirling around, he backhanded her across the face, causing her to stumble into the wall. "Never let me hear you speak like that about our mother again!" he snarled.
Michael dashed down the length of the alley and grabbed Seize’s arm. "Seize! Don’t ever strike one of my pilots!" he commanded.
"I shall do what I please. I’ll remind you that I provided your mobile suits, and most of your strategies." He wrested his arm from Michael’s grasp.
Michael’s eyes narrowed. "I see how it is. We shall not meet again, Seize. Farewell." He held out his hand, helped Wendy to her feet, and stormed away with her in tow, Wendy staring back at Seize over her shoulder, her hand to her cheek.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Relena stood at the window of her third-story dorm room, watching the moon through the wispy clouds in the hills just beyond the university, casting a silvery glow across the midnight sky. She hadn’t changed out of her school uniform yet out of exhaustion from a long day, but, despite that, she couldn’t get to sleep, no matter what she tried. Quatre and Heptamera were having an all-nighter with Kira and Shadow somewhere in the university, or so they said. She glanced at her watch, which said 12:45 AM, unaware of the young man hidden in the shadows of the large oak tree planted on the front lawn of the women’s dorms, watching her. Pulling a small locket out from under her uniform, where it hung on a long, silvery chain, she slid her thumbnail along the edge and popped it open. Her real parents, King and Queen Peacecraft, smiled up at her from the frame, across from the portrait of her surrogate parents, the late Minister Darlian and Mrs. Darlian. Her foster m! other had given it to her on her eighteenth birthday about two months before.
Suddenly, someone opened the door of her room. She whirled around to see a young man with wild black hair, a bandanna tied across the bottom half of his face, and mirrored sunglasses over his eyes coming straight at her in a dead run. Before she could so much as scream, she was flying out of the window. For a moment, time seemed to stand still as she stared at her assailant, suspended in midair. Her entire life was flashing before her eyes; the blurred image of a burning castle, her foster mother telling her she was too reserved, her foster father as he lay dying. Heero telling her that he would kill her, then dancing with her at the school party, then talking to her on the Libra just before he left. Mariemaia smiling at her as she spoke about being a figurehead for the Barton Foundation, then jumping in front of her to take the bullet for her. Heero collapsing into her arms, then shoving her out of the car’s path just a month ago…
I don’t want to die! she thought, screaming the words in her mind. There’s too much at stake, too much… In a rush, she began to fall again, hurtling down towards the ground. Something caught her, buckling a little, and she found herself looking up into Heero’s emotionless eyes, his face framed by the night sky, her rapid descent broken by his arms. "Where… did you… come from?" she whispered before she fainted.
"I’ve always been here," he murmured, gazing down at her.
He glanced up the window of her room. There was no sign of Relena’s attacker. "Next time…" he muttered, eyes narrowing.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Someone was shaking Heptamera’s shoulder. Lifting her head groggily, she looked up into Quatre’s anxious eyes. "Are you all right?"
She nodded slightly. Within moments, Quatre found himself eye level with the top of Heptamera’s boots. Standing up, he put a hand on Heptamera’s arm to steady her. "Who attacked you?"
"Vladimir Gray. He wasn’t the one who knocked me out, though." Suddenly, she whipped around and stared at the clock on the front of the library, which said 12:50 AM. Her eyes widened, and she bolted, racing down the street as fast as she could. Quatre paused to wave up at Kira and Shadow, who stood on the roof of the building across the street, and ran after Heptamera.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Carrying Relena, Heero made his way across the street to the men’s dorms and up the two flights of stairs to his room, glad for the solitude of the night. Gently letting her feet drop down to the floor and leaning her against him, he freed his hand, pulled his key out of his pocket, and unlocked the door. He shoved the key back into his pocket and picked her up again, carrying her inside and laying her down on the bed. Something clicked, and he froze. A soft, pleasant voice spoke up from the corner of the room. "How sweet. So, Wing Zero, we meet again. I thought you’d come here."
Heero turned around slowly. "I don’t believe I know you."
The stranger, a girl with black hair and black eyes that strongly reminded him of Heptamera, sat in the corner in a puddle of moonlight, smiling at him sarcastically, a pistol aimed straight at his heart. "Such a pity. Don’t you remember anything of your training?"
His eyes widened a little. "It can’t be…"
She chuckled. "Oh, so you do remember. Doctor J was so proficient at giving you worthy opponents. Too bad you could never beat me… But that’s neither here nor there. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if you and your little girlfriend died together? Lovers until the very end… what a lyrical obituary. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Now, sit on the bed – there you go. Ah, what a touching scene." She threw back her head and laughed. It was probably the biggest mistake of her life.
Heero whipped out his gun and shot her through the heart. To his surprise, sparks flew from where the bullet had impacted, and the humanoid robot crumpled, its mainframe short-circuiting. Eyes still glowing a little, it croaked, "You can never destroy all of us! I am the Arachnid Double, only one of hordes. OZ Gen-X will prevail. You cannot stop ussssss…" The light went out.
"So that’s who Quatre and Heptamera are after," he muttered, knocking the spent casings out of his gun. He stood up and walked around the bed, watching the smoking robot for any signs of movement.
"Don’t get any closer!" Heptamera’s voice called from the doorway.
She flipped the light switch and rushed in, Quatre and Kira at her heels. Shadow stood outside the door, fending off the gathering crowd of students awakened by the gunshot. At the arrival of the night watchman, who dispersed the onlookers, he slipped in and shut the door behind him. Heptamera crossed the room to where the android sprawled in the chair, the pistol still clenched in its hand. "I think I recognize this one. It’s a model that’s normally used on my home planet for hazardous work or for suicide missions, though we usually employ human agents. They’re physically almost indistinguishable from humans, except for the fact that if you shoot them where the heart or brain would be, they short-circuit. They’re usually made to look like their owner."
"You own this one?" asked Heero.
Heptamera gave him a strange look. "How can this one look anything like me? I have green hair and blue eyes, if you haven’t noticed. Besides, I’ve never owned an android in my entire life."
"Well, it does look remarkably like you," Shadow said, walking over to get a clearer view of the robot’s face. "Maybe it belongs to someone related to you…"
"I have no siblings, and my mother never owned any androids. Hell, this thing looks nothing like my mother," she replied flatly, causing Quatre to stare at her in surprise.
"Anyway, that thing said something about ‘OZ Gen-X’ before it completely shut down. Got any ideas on what that’s about?" interrupted Heero.
Kira gawked at him. "How did you…?" She stopped in mid-sentence and glanced at Quatre and Heptamera. "I guess the only way to solve this is to call Headquarters…"
"They know already. I told them awhile ago that this might happen, and they agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to let Carson in on the secret," Heptamera interjected. "Actually, I think it’s better that he knew. It’s difficult trying to hide things all the time. Right now, we have more pressing matters at hand. OZ Gen-X has fifty mobile suit pilots ready for combat, and we have only one – me. One against fifty isn’t a terribly fair battle. I can safely say that they have around fifty mobile suits, unless, of course, they have developed a system similar to the Mobile Doll system, in which case they will have far more than that. We have to be prepared in case they decide to attack. If we sit this one out, we won’t have a chance for peace. Romefeller was notorious for starting conflicts and playing the role of the puppet master in the government so that it could manufacture its mobile suits, and I have a feeling that the supplier of OZ Gen-X is playing the role of a ! sort of ‘New Romefeller.’ However, I don’t want to be turned into a marionette, and I doubt any of you do, either. I, for one, am going to fight back."
Everyone stared at her. "How did you –" Relena began.
"Don’t you know when they’re going to make their move?" Heero cut in.
"No. I found out that they were going after Relena tonight and tried to call the others back, but I was knocked unconscious. The radio was destroyed, presumably by either Vladimir Gray or the android in the corner, who knocked me out. However, I suggest that we keep tabs on what’s going on. I’m afraid that, if they decide to strike, it shall be sooner than they’d previously scheduled. We have to keep our guard up, and we have to get the word out to Preventer and Brussels that there might be another attempt on someone else’s life. I’m going to need my MS in the area, fueled up and prepared for any conflict that might arise. The rest of you have to make sure that there are enough shelters for anyone that might get caught in the crossfire. This is between us and OZ Gen-X."
Relena finally cut her off. "How did you know all of that history about Romefeller and OZ? You’re not even from this galaxy!"
"I was one of the few who actually paid attention during Native History class back at home," she replied, bending over the android and ignoring their questioning glances.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"Wait a minute, Colonel Sally. Are you saying that I can’t take my mobile suit out of storage?" Heptamera sounded as though she was on the verge of exploding. Quatre and Shadow hid their faces behind some magazines they had taken from the lobby of the main office, pretending that they weren’t listening. Relena sat back a little, already resigned that Heptamera was going to have her way, whether or not she was going to do it legally. Kira stared up at the ceiling, balancing a pencil on her nose, while Heero leaned on his hand and stared out of the soundproof phone booth that all six of them were crammed into.
"Yes. The only proof we have that the enemy is going to attack is what little we could pick out from the tapes you sent us."
"But, Colonel, Quatre, Kira, and Shadow all heard him! They were right there!"
"I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to forget about it. I can’t change the policy we have. Just be glad we haven’t destroyed it yet."
"Actually, even if you went at it with every nuclear missile you have, you can’t demolish a CTAT mobile suit."
"Why not?" Sally looked and sounded genuinely curious. Heero couldn’t help but straighten up a little.
Heptamera sighed quietly. "CT, which stands for crystalline titanium, is one of the strongest metal alloys in existence. It’s formed in zero gravity and in the molten cores of certain planets. Regular CT ranks at an eight on our universal alloy strength chart, which goes from zero to ten, zero being the weakest, ten being the strongest. Steel is a two, titanium a five, and Gundanium a nine. CT2, better known as double-hardened crystalline titanium, ranks at nine as well. My MS is made up entirely of CT2. However, each number ranking has a rather broad range of strengths, so the more accurate numbering would be 9.8, with Gundanium at 9.3."
"Interesting. How are you so sure that a couple of nukes won’t destroy it?"
"The scientists who designed it have tried many, many times. So have our enemies. Nobody’s succeeded yet, and I have a feeling nobody ever will."
"I still can’t allow you to take it out of storage. I know that you don’t intend to do anything more than defend us against OZ Gen-X, but we are a pacifist planet and nobody here wants another war, however short. We would rather talk this out."
Heptamera started to reply, then changed her mind. "All right. I give up. I suppose that the old idea that you have to have an army to repel an army no longer stands. After all, we’ve been able to do so ourselves… with an army of bodyguards for a handful of high-maintenance diplomats."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Quatre climbed up the stairs leading to the roof of the Visual Arts College near the fringes of New Oxford, needing some fresh air and a break from studying. He paused at the top of the steps when he saw that the door opening out onto the roof was ajar. "Wonder who’s up there?" he mused, peering around the doorway.
He could see the back of Heptamera’s head as she stood at the edge, staring out towards the sprawling countryside that had reclaimed the land around New Oxford during the time that Old Oxford had lain covered in dust and cobwebs, forgotten by the masses for almost two hundred years. Her spine was ramrod straight, the wind whipping her hair into her face. Kneeling, she unpacked something from her satchel and stood up again, a pair of binoculars in her hand. Raising them to her face, she adjusted them, apparently focusing in on a cluster of trees about five miles away. The wind carried her voice to Quatre’s ears.
"So the reports were true. There is still a mobile suit on Earth. Looks like Heero was busy that year-and-a-half he was gone… Howard must’ve helped him out, too."
"Howard?" muttered Quatre. "What does that Hawaiian shirt-wearing maniac friend of Duo’s have to do with anything? And since when did Heptamera know about Howard?"
Heptamera leaned over and pulled a thick notebook stuffed with papers out of her satchel. Flipping through it, she mumbled, "Let’s see. Wing Zero Custom, designed by the original scientists of Operation Meteor… has bird-like wings, main weapon is a twin buster rifle… That sounds about right."
She shut the notebook and packed it back into her bag with the binoculars. Quatre slipped away before she caught him at the door, feeling a little guilty. "If Heero’s rebuilt his Wing Zero, maybe we still have a chance…" he muttered. "But if he uses it, we might be plunged back into war."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
In the middle of the night, the phone jangled. Quatre twitched in his chair, situated in one of the corners of Relena’s dorm room, his hand groping for the receiver. Eventually he succeeded in picking it up. "Hmm? Hello?" He stifled a yawn, eyes still closed.
"Mr. Winner? This is Ambassador Une, from the Preventer Agency. Are you awake?"
"Huh? Yeah, I’m awake, I’m awake." He yawned again.
"Are you sitting down?"
"I’ve been sleeping in a chair every night for the past week, ever since Minister Darlian almost got killed. Of course I’m sitting down," he muttered, rubbing his eyes.
"The President of the ESUN was killed not two hours ago."
Quatre really woke up then. "What?"
"The President was found dead in his office, apparently from a snakebite."
"Yes. You’re going to hear about it on the news in a few hours, where you are. When you do, act as though you knew nothing about it before. We’re telling the media that he was shot, not bitten, because it appears to be an assassination. Whoever did this left a note. Apparently, they were the ones who attempted to murder Minister Darlian last week, and claim that, since she didn’t die, they had to kill the President. Do you have any ideas as to who might have done this?"
"Well, there’s the current suspect, OZ Gen-X. There is always the possibility of a political rival, or someone else who might benefit from his death…"
Someone touched him on the shoulder. He nearly jumped through the window in his surprise. Whoever it was took advantage of his loosened grip on the phone and pried the receiver out of his grasp. "Hello? Ambassador Une? This is Relena Darlian. What’s wrong? Do they need me back in Brussels?"
"No, Minister Darlian. The President’s been assassinated."
Relena let out a tiny shriek. "W-what? The President’s dead?"
"I’m going back there immediately."
"NO! Don’t set one foot outside of New Oxford. As of right now, you are one of the few people whom, if you’re killed, the entire infrastructure of the government will crumble. You’re safer where you are than anywhere else."
Relena was silent, staring off into space. She handed the phone back to Quatre and sat down on the edge of her bed. Quatre muttered "Good night, and good luck," before hanging up.
"The President’s dead… How could this happen?" Relena mumbled.
"Nobody ever knows," whispered a voice from the shadows.
Both of them jumped. Heptamera crept into the circle of moonlight, her face untouched by sleep. "I’ve been awake all night, thinking. It’s a result of recurring insomnia. I’ve had it since I was five years old – it let’s me think when there aren’t any distractions. Assassination by snakebite dates back for centuries, before snipers. Nothing’s new these days – that’s been tried on me a couple of times. It never worked because I’m immune to snake venom, using the same method that some royal families of Europe used. They took small doses of poison every day, and their bodies adjusted to it. They couldn’t be poisoned to death."
She leaned on the windowsill. "I once heard that it takes a disaster of immense scale before anybody will see that there’s been a problem all along. I guess this is your wake-up call." There was a hint of melancholy in her voice. "From here on out, we tread carefully and keep one eye in front of us and another one behind. Who knows when they might strike next?"
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Backstage at the music club’s first concert, Heptamera stood near the curtain, her music in hand, muttering under her breath. Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she spun around, fists up. "Whoa, there. I’m not going to hurt you. Ready to perform?" Quatre asked, tucking his violin under his chin.
"If I’m not, it’s a little too late to back out, don’t you think?" Heptamera replied, stretching out her fingers. "We end with the violin concerto, right?"
"Yeah. We’re doing ensembles first, and then the solos. You don’t come on for about another hour."
"That’s fine with me. Hey, you did invite the others, didn’t you?"
"’Course I did. Heero and Relena are somewhere near the center, and Kira and Shadow said that they’d be near the back."
"Relena’s sitting in the middle? Just two weeks after the last time someone tries to assassinate her, and she’s sitting in the most vulnerable spot in the hall?"
"Those were the last two seats together. Look, she has Heero right next to her. It could be worse."
Heptamera relaxed a little bit. "I suppose."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"Colonel Kushrenada, this is Private Long. Operation Peacebreaker has been accomplished. We will reach combat air space in about two hours."
"Good, good. Are you sure that there is no threat of retaliation?" asked Michael, smoothly shifting his mobile suit carrier into high gear.
"Yes. All mobile suits were destroyed two years ago. The government has a ‘talk-it-out’ policy – they won’t attack us." Private Long smirked in satisfaction.
"What fools. Ah, but they’ll learn the hard way… my way. Kushrenada out."
A formation of ten mobile suit carriers rose up into the air and sped across the North Atlantic from the North Pole, headed for England.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"Is everyone ready?" asked a male voice outside the doors of the concert hall. Fifty heads nodded back.
"All right. Squad Five, come with me."
A group of five men detached itself from the assembled pack and lined up behind him. They pushed open one of the double doors into the hall and filed through silently. Their leader waved frantically at Shadow and Kira where they sat near the back of the room. Both of them jumped to their feet and climbed over the knees of everyone else in their row and raced up to him. He whispered something hurriedly to them, then gestured towards the door. Kira went around to each of the five double doors, moving anything that obstructed them out of the way. When she was finished, she gave Shadow the thumbs-up signal. Meanwhile, Quatre and Heptamera had reached the conclusion of the violin concerto. Before anybody could even think of clapping, Shadow climbed onto a lectern standing near the back exit and yelled, "EVACUATE THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY! HOSTILE MOBILE SUITS ARE OVERHEAD AND ARE PREPARING TO BOMB THIS AREA! GET DOWN TO THE SHELTERS NOW!"
The occupants of the hall went berserk. Preventer agents burst through the doors, wearing bulletproof vests over their uniforms. They directed the masses of students, teachers, and civilians out of the room as Shadow and Kira fought their way through the crowd to the stage. Heptamera had disappeared from sight, and Quatre had been hustled away with the other musicians. Heero and Relena rushed to them. "What’s going on?" cried Relena. Heero stood by silently, watching their faces for a reaction.
Kira stared at her, uncertain whether she should answer. "As of an hour ago, you are the highest-ranking official of the central ESUN government left alive and well."
"What the hell do you mean?"
"The others ministers, with the exception of the general representative of each terrestrial country and the individual colonies, were having a meeting and a bomb went off right under them. They have all been declared dead, missing, or in critical condition, with a five to thirty percent chance of recovery. We need to get you someplace safe."
All of the blood drained from Relena’s face and she stumbled backwards, her eyes glazing over. Heero caught her and set her back on her feet. "I’m staying with her," he muttered, his stance solid and unmoving.
"No, you aren’t. I am," Quatre interjected, dashing out of the wings, his violin case in hand. A blast shook the building, and some plaster cracked from the ceiling, landing at his feet. "You go get… you know. Apparently, you’re our only defense against whoever it is. I’ll take care of Relena."
Heero looked torn between asking how Quatre knew and simply acting dumb. Kira and Shadow seemed perplexed, and Relena purely worried. "You can’t mean…" she began.
"’Course I do." Another explosion shook the concert hall. "Go, Carson!"
Heero made up his mind and took one step towards the exit, then hesitated. He leaned back, gave Relena a swift peck on the cheek and, turning his back on the four of them, jogged away. As Kira and Shadow pulled her along with them, Relena’s hand reflexively rose to her face as she stared after Heero’s disappearing form, tears welling up in her eyes and beginning to spill over. Quatre, following them, saw her expression and whispered, "He’ll be back. I know he will." He dropped his voice so that nobody could hear him. "I hope I’m right."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
A shadow raced through the deserted streets of New Oxford, not bothering to stop, despite the bombs falling all around it. "Must… reach… the… dock!" Heptamera gasped, stumbling a little. She had changed into her flight uniform backstage, when everything had fallen into chaos, and was wearing her goggles and headset, her hair tied back in a ponytail. Spying a motorcycle chained to a lamppost, she pulled a small hand torch out of her pocket and cut through the chain, wincing at the proximity of another falling grenade. Detaching a small, round button from her belt, she jumped onto the motorcycle and jammed it into the ignition, twisting it clockwise. The motorcycle roared to life. Heptamera sped away through the streets and into the countryside, headed due west, towards the coast of England.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
The whistle and ensuing blast of falling missiles could be heard clearly from a wild thicket about five miles outside of New Oxford University. Soon a different sound drowned it out, the sound of an engine thundering to life for the first time in one and a half years…
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
The phone rang at the broadcasting headquarters of the worldwide news station. A slender young woman with brown hair and cobalt blue eyes picked it up. "Hello?"
"Report, Private Ellsfield," Michael Kushrenada ordered.
"Operation Airwave is underway. We have successfully infiltrated the building."
"Good. Be ready to receive my signal in about two minutes."
"Yes, Colonel. Ellsfield out."
Rika Ellsfield and Nikolai Dominico, the driver of the car that had nearly killed Relena, checked on the trussed-up bodies of several guards and news anchors lined the hallway, all of them drugged. "This is going to be so simple," Nikolai crowed.
"Shut up," Rika snapped. "You never know what can go wrong."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Michael Kushrenada sat back in the cockpit of his MS, watching the Virgo III Mobile Dolls level New Oxford. "I hate school," he muttered, flashing a sadistic smile.
He and four of his ace pilots were stationed off to the side of the battlefield in their mobile suits. Five of the remaining forty-three pilots were situated on a boat out on a nearby river, controlling the Mobile Dolls. The other thirty-eight pilots were scattered all over the place, waiting for the signal to spread out and attack the hidden armament stores, carrying off or destroying every last cache of weapons. Reaching out, he flicked on his videophone and tapped something into his keyboard. The words "Broadcasting systems online" flashed across the screen of his console. He dialed, and within moments, Ambassador Une’s face appeared on the screen. "Who is this?" she demanded.
"My name is Wayne Adanerhsuk, leader of OZ Gen-X. We have already bombed most of the ESUN government and we are currently attacking your arsenal at New Oxford University. Do you have anything to say?"
"You – why are you doing this? What do you think that you’re going to accomplish!"
"A successful takeover of the ESUN government and a revival of the Romefeller Foundation and OZ."
"You’ll never succeed!"
"Oh, really? Turn on your television – you’ll find out."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. Someone shouted at her in the background, and she turned away for a moment. When she looked back at the screen, she was positively furious. "What are you doing!"
"Merely broadcasting my imminent victory over the airwaves, just as you broadcasted the defeat and death of Treize Kushrenada three years ago. Good evening, Ambassador. Rest assured, I’ll be in control by morning." He flicked off the videophone and returned to watching the battle through his viewscreen. Suddenly, he saw something rose out of a copse of trees about five miles away. Michael squinted through the hazy smoke covering the battlefield, just barely making out the figure of a mobile suit with wings.
"No…!" he hissed. He reached for his helmet and put it on. "Initiate MIND System!"
The three-dimensional model of the MS he had just spotted appeared in his visor. "Wing Gundam Zero, capable of high speeds and transatmospheric flight. Main weapon is a twin buster rifle," a robotic voice issuing from the console told him.
His radio unexpectedly crackled to life. "Surrender, or face total annihilation," a monotone voice commanded.
Michael grabbed his microphone. "Never, Wing Zero. I know who you are. So, you did manage to survive the bombing. But OZ Gen-X shall succeed – you can’t possibly take on fifty Mobile Dolls at once."
"Roger that." The communication went dead.
"What the hell does he think he’s…!"
The Wing Zero flashed across the sky, both of its beam sabers drawn and ready. All fifty Virgo IIIs turned to meet it, surrounding the Wing Zero and pummeling it with their beam rifles. With one mighty sweep, the beam saber sliced five of them in half and, without missing a beat, proceeded to annihilate the remaining forty within minutes. "No! Seize! That damned traitor gave me outdated technology! But what can you expect?" Michael muttered to himself. He turned on his all-way radio. "All OZ-Gen-X pilots to your mobile suits immediately! Iroquois in lead, Avis taking up the rear."
In the cockpit of his Wing Zero, Heero watched as the mobile suits massed before him. Like lambs to the slaughter, he thought. All it takes is something like OZ Gen-X for them to rally behind. What fools; can’t they see that there’s more to life than fighting and bloodshed? But who am I to talk? I never could believe that I have any purpose other than to be the perfect soldier, to fight for the cause of peace…
He jerked back to attention. The first surge of mobile suits was headed straight for him. "Activate ZERO system!"
Immediately, he was pulled into the whirling vortex of the ZERO system. He mowed through wave after wave of mobile suits, slashing them to pieces with his beam sabers. After all of the twenty-five Iroquois mobile suits had been decimated, the remaining Avis mobile suits attacked, all of them coming on at once. Heero struck out with his beam sabers and buster rifle, obliterating two to three at a time, with the exception of one, who constantly dodged his shots. Finally, it was the last one on the battlefield. It dodged another volley from the buster rifle, jumped, and latched onto the back of the Wing Zero, where it clung despite Heero’s attempts to throw it off. His radio crackled, eventually transmitting the voice of a young man, panting with exhaustion. "Ah, so you think that you can stop us? I’ll prove you wrong. Oh, yes. The worse is yet to come, Wing Zero. Your little friend didn’t die when I pushed her out the window, and thus I disgraced OZ Gen-X. I m! ust not fail again…"
The radio clicked off. "What the hell – he was the one who tried to kill Relena!" Heero snarled. "That son of a –"
Suddenly, an explosion ripped through the frame of the Wing Zero, sending it crashing to the ground. Heero gasped, his forehead bleeding where it had hit the edge of the control panel in the impact. Warning lights blinked on all over the console. "Full status report!" he commanded.
He scrolled down the list of damages. "Still operational. Good."
A small distance away, Michael saw the entire scene through the videoscreen in the cockpit of his MS. He paled at the blast. "Private Dorian… self-destructed?"
Flipping on his all-way radio, he commanded, "All OZ Gen-X pilots still conscious, please signal to Command Unit One!"
After several moments, the screen in front of him flashed the number twenty. He pressed a button on his console. The screen to his right lit up and split into four boxes. Wendy’s face appeared in the upper left-hand corner, followed by those of Andrew Colliers, Pieter Vauxhale, and Vladimir Gray, going clockwise from Wendy’s box. "Comrades, we only have twenty pilots left alive, possibly more who are merely injured. Private Dorian has just self-destructed his Avis suit, sacrificing himself to cripple the enemy. Attack now."
"Roger, Colonel," they responded.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"But Colonel Sally –" Heptamera started.
"No, I am not letting you get your mobile suit. Communications between this hangar and Headquarters have been down for several hours, and nobody knows why. We need clearance from Headquarters before we can do anything." In the main office of the hangar, Sally Po folded her arms across her chest and stood firm in front of the wall of locker keys, blocking Heptamera from reaching them.
"What kind of clearance?"
"A phone call would do."
"Does this fit your description of clearance? Colonel Sally, look at what’s happening!" Heptamera pulled a small, portable television out of her satchel, flipped it on, and thrust the screen into Sally’s face. All of the blood drained out of Sally’s face as she stared at the ensuing battle, broken once in awhile by static.
"What… is this?"
"Didn’t you know? The leader of OZ Gen-X has been broadcasting the attack on New Oxford on every single channel since 2000 hours! They’ve also killed or critically injured every single member of the ESUN government in Brussels!"
"When – when did this happen?"
"I don’t know. All I know is that, soon afterwards, they launched the attack on New Oxford. All of the civilians are underground in shelters, with about fifty Preventer agents that were probably dispatched from Headquarters."
"Then who’s piloting – it – it can’t be…"
"Yes, that’s the Wing Zero Custom. My guess is that Heero rebuilt it during the time that he disappeared, probably with help from someone else. Even so, he can’t fight this by himself. Please, Colonel –"
Sally sighed, resigned. "All right. I’m not saying that I believe in what you’re doing. I understand your intentions, and that’s as close as I’m going to come to agreeing with you. I can only say that I hope you can achieve what you’ve planned. Here." She unhooked the keys to the proper locker and tossed them to Heptamera.
"Thank you, Colonel. I’ll try not to let you down."
Sally watched Heptamera hurry away towards the storage area. "You’re so brave, even braver than some of the most courageous people I’ve ever known. There’s so much more to this than what’s on the surface, isn’t there?" she whispered.
At 2200 hours, two hours since the beginning of the battle in New Oxford, the streamlined bulk of the Falconer stepped out into the light of the moon, its eyes glowing, and took off, headed due west.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
From where he lay, Heero could see two mobile suits lumbering towards him through the smoke. With some split-second maneuvering, the Wing Zero was back on its feet. "Coming back for some more?" he muttered. "When will you learn?"
When they drew closer, his blood froze. "They’re both… Gundams?"
The lead Gundam, a dark gray one with red streaks, stopped short of the Wing Zero and pulled out its beam saber. "Prepare to die, Wing Zero!" Vladimir’s voice crowed over the radio.
"Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure," muttered Heero, backpedaling. He flew up about three hundred meters, bringing the arms of his Gundam together. The two halves of the twin buster rifle clicked together, and he aimed at the lead Gundam. "Sayonara."
Suddenly, something slammed into him from behind. "Remember me?" hissed Wendy’s voice. He whirled around in time to see two Gundams headed straight for him. They both plowed into him, ramming him into the ground and through the piles of wrecked or disabled mobile suits. One of them wielded a beam trident similar to that of the Altron Gundam, the other a pair of heat rods like those of the Epyon.
"Let me introduce you to Gundam Poseidon and Gundam Apollo," snickered the voice of Andrew Colliers. "Poseidon is the teal Gundam, and Apollo is the gold-plated one."
During his short speech, the Wing Zero had already climbed back to its feet and picked up its twin buster rifle. Before they could react, Heero fired six shots, all of them hitting their marks. First Gundam Apollo, then Gundam Poseidon crashed into the battlefield. He glanced up and saw a beam saber headed directly for his mobile suit’s gun arm. Ducking, the Wing Zero fired at its assailant, sending the violet mobile suit backwards. Blows began to hail down on the Wing Zero from all four of the enemy Gundams, despite the volleys from the buster rifle and the well-placed slashes of the beam saber. Unexpectedly, the console of the Wing Zero began to glow red. "Warning, ammunition depleted. Warning, fuel levels low."
With one last desperate effort, the Wing Zero shook off all four of the Gundams and flew up into the sky. Wheeling around in midair, it fired dozens of shots from the buster rifle, bombarding all of them. One after another, they fell, weakened. Heero landed the Wing Zero, which staggered a little when it touched the ground. A sudden flash of lightning and the rumble of approaching thunder heralded the arrival of the first storm of the winter. At least it’ll put out the fires and save whatever’s left of New Oxford, he thought, ignoring the throbbing pain in his shoulders and back.
"Deactivate – ZERO – system!" Heero groaned.
Out of nowhere, a cluster of smart missiles exploded into the back of the Wing Zero, knocking it to the ground. Heero’s head snapped forward over the controls, and the cut on his forehead began to bleed profusely again. "Who the hell…?" he muttered, noting that he was now suspended with the back of his seat towards the star-covered sky.
"Ah, Wing Zero. You’re a better pilot than I thought. But even the Wing Zero couldn’t take on an entire army and stay standing, could it? After defeating the Epyon, you thought that you were unbeatable, didn’t you? But now you’ve met your match in the Gundam Nemesis," taunted Michael via the radio.
Heero struggled to rev up the engines. Nothing responded. He was completely out of fuel and ammunition. "So this is how it ends…" he whispered, closing his eyes.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
The dark green bulk of Gundam Nemesis loomed over the Wing Zero, brandishing a twin buster rifle and beam saber identical to those of the Wing Zero, rivulets of rainwater streaming down its armor. "I watched from the shadows as my uncle died," Michael whispered hoarsely. "And it shall be from the shadows that I strike back at those who destroyed his dream!"
"Oh, sure you will. Got any room on your dance card for me?" a feminine voice asked, sarcastic.
Michael wheeled around to see an unfamiliar mobile suit behind him. A flash of lightning illuminated it briefly, long enough for him to notice that it looked similar to the Wing Zero, only larger, painted black, dark blue, and silver and missing the wings. "Who the hell are you?"
"I am Falconer 7. Surrender now, Michael Kushrenada, or forever hold yourself responsible for your own ills. I warn you, giving up would save your life."
"I will not surrender!" he growled.
Without another word, the mobile suit flew at him, pulling out a twin buster rifle. Michael flipped a set of four levers on the panel in front of him and backed away. Instantly, the other four Gundams leapt back into action, revived. "How the hell did you do that?" muttered Heptamera under her breath. "Initiate IGS."
"Enemy MS Gundam Poseidon at ten o’clock," the monotone voice of the IGS informed her. Hurtling towards her, the Poseidon lunged with its beam trident. She dodged and fired several rounds, successfully splintering the trident and hitting the Gundam itself, causing it to crash into a pile of destroyed Avis suits.
"Enemy MS Gundam Charon at six o’clock." Spinning around, she blasted a continuous stream of bullets into the dark gray Gundam with red streaks until she hit its fuel compartment and the entire mobile suit detonated.
"Enemy MS Gundam Dionysus at three o’clock. Enemy MS Gundam Apollo at nine o’clock. Ammunition in right buster rifle depleted."
"Oh, shit!" The Falconer whipped out a second twin buster rifle and, throwing out its arms, blew away both of them, crossing arms when both buster rifles went down by half of their remaining ammunition. "That was too easy…" she mumbled.
"Impressive. Very impressive," Michael said, applauding audibly over the radio. Gundam Nemesis still hadn’t moved from where it stood next to the downed Wing Zero. "But you still have to deal with me."
"Who said I ever forgot the biggest pain the ass I’ve ever known?" she snapped, putting away the buster rifles. "If you wanted to get rid of the Wing Zero, you should’ve done it while my back was turned."
"Ah, but I want you dead as well, Falconer 7."
Unsheathing a beam saber that glowed bright white in contrast to his chartreuse blade, the Falconer rushed at him in a dead run. He brought out his buster rifle and sent one blast after another in her direction. Each shot glanced off of the shield mounted on the Falconer’s left arm. Within moments, she was nearly on top of him. Crackling as it flew through the air, the beam saber slashed at his Gundam twice, slicing deeply into the arms and legs. He retaliated, dropping the buster rifle and, picking up his beam sabers, crossed them and brought them forward and out to the sides, attempting to slice her mobile suit into four pieces. When the sparks died away, he found himself pinned by her beam cannon, the Falconer itself merely dented in several places. Concentrating hard, she entered his thoughts. < How – how can it be that you survived that with just a few dents? Very well, you have own secrets. But little do you know that I could just press a button on ! my console, and I’d be on my way to rendezvous with Seize at his space fortress. You are such a fool, Falconer 7. >
"Don’t even think about it!" she snarled, unaware that he hadn’t said a word out loud. She began to squeeze the trigger of the beam cannon.
Fortunately, he didn’t catch her slip. His lips curled into a smile. "I don’t have to." Unexpectedly, the Gundam took a step backwards and folded in on itself, converting into an armored shuttle and accelerating out into the atmosphere before Heptamera could react.
"Two can play at this game," she hissed. "Convert to transatmospheric jet form and engage in pursuit of enemy shuttle fleeing the area."
As she flew away, she pulled out a small metal disk and inserted it into the console. Several digits appeared on the small screen in front of her, then disappeared. Soon, Heero’s bloodied face flashed onto the screen. "Who is this?"
"It’s me, Heptamera. Right now I’m pursuing Gundam Nemesis out to his rendezvous point with his supplier. Stay put, okay? Maybe even catch a little sleep. I’m going to call Lucrezia and have them send out some rescue crews in the morning. Don’t do anything rash."
She hung up before he could get a word in edgewise and dialed Preventer Headquarters. A rather exhausted Lucrezia picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"Lucrezia, this is Falconer. I need you to get some rescue crews out to New Oxford. The OZ Gen-X threat has been stopped, but I’m still chasing their leader." Seeing that Lucrezia was about to protest, Heptamera cut her off with, "Don’t worry about me. Just take care of the deceased and injured out there, okay?"
"Roger. Good luck, Falconer."
Heptamera nodded and disconnected. "Full status report," she commanded.
"Slight damage to main armor. Fuel levels still high. Beam sabers are operational. All buster rifles out of ammunition. Beam cannon and missile launchers are operational and fully loaded. Thrusters approaching maximum output. Target shuttle entering docking bay of Space Fortress Barbarossa XVI in 200 seconds."
"And I’m following him… how insane am I?" she muttered to herself.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
A pair of indigo blue eyes glared at the sleek jet as it smoothly slipped through the closing doors of the docking bay, converting back into a mobile suit and opening fire with its beam cannon and missile launchers on the Gemini QAT Mobile Dolls guarding the gateway of the Barbarossa XVI. "So, by some stroke of luck, you managed to beat Michael. I suppose you think that the other four Gundam pilots died down there… how stupid of you…"
The radio hanging on her belt crackled to life. "Wendy! Get up to the command station immediately! We need your help!" her half-brother Seize yelled.
"You’ll count this as a favor?" she queried.
"Of course. Now go!" he snapped.
Wendy dashed along the walkway, up the stairs, and into the command station. One of the men shoved a clipboard at her. "Here! We need you to do this!"
She glanced through the sheaf of papers. "You need me to test a new MS?"
"Yes! The Scorpio CTAT, just developed recently, in Hangar 4. Now, go!"
Hiding her malicious smile, she ran down to the hangars. "Sweet vengeance!" she whispered, her eyes gleaming.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Heptamera blasted through line after line of Mobile Dolls, trying to reach the command center. Out of nowhere, something collided with her from the side, and she spun away, eventually skidding to a stop. A mobile suit that she had never seen before was crouched in the spot she had just vacated. It resembled a scorpion in form, even imitating its barbed tail with a multi-segmented metal whip containing a beam saber at the end. "What the hell is that?" she muttered.
She soon received her answer. Wendy’s voice came roaring out of her radio. "YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME! I HAVE THE NEW SCORPIO CTAT, SUPERIOR TO THAT OUTDATED PILE OF JUNK YOU’RE PILOTING!"
"Just CTAT?" Heptamera almost laughed. "Mere CT? I’ll show you."
Whirling around, the Falconer shouldered its beam cannon and fired seven successive shots at the Scorpio. In the split-second before the first impact, Wendy ejected, floating away to safety as the Scorpio shattered into fragments of metal.
"Warning, only one shot left in beam cannon. All other ammunition is depleted. Only beam sabers fully operational."
"Shit!" Heptamera hissed. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw whom she had come for. "But… what happened to him?" she whispered, aghast.
Michael Kushrenada had stumbled out of a side hallway, clutching his sides, bent double in his agony. Blood spilled from numerous bullet wounds on his body as he collapsed, weakened. Before anyone could see him, Heptamera shifted the Falconer back into its jet form and sped towards his crumpled form, trying to line up the sights on the auto-piloting system. "Target acquired," the IGS voice said.
She opened the hatch on the cockpit without stopping or slowing down. "Perform a one-eighty degree roll and fly by the target!" she ordered.
The jet turned upside down and, swerving to avoid an advancing forklift, followed the curve of the wall, heading straight for Michael. Reaching out, she grabbed him by the collar and hoisted him up so that he didn’t drag on the ground. "Reverse roll and open partition between pilot and passenger compartments."
Michael’s bleeding body flopped on top of her as the jet rolled upright. Suppressing her disgust at the proximity of his body, she pushed him through the gap that had opened into the passenger compartment. "Close pilot’s hatch and partition. Resume manual controls. Initiate advanced armoring system."
She gunned the engine and flipped up the cover on the beam cannon trigger, waiting for the crosshairs to line up. Finally, they locked onto the small aperture in the doors of the docking bay. Ignoring the gunfire of the Geminis, she pressed the trigger. The blast shook the entire space fortress as the doors peeled open, letting the jet burst through and into the safety of space.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
With a start, Heero woke up, his forehead split by an immense jolt of pain. The first thing he noticed was that he was suspended from the ceiling by a pair of straps that were cutting into his torso. His eyes focussed, and he stared at the bloodstained console before him. "I slept in the Wing Zero?" he muttered, putting his hand to his head.
He pointed his feet at the side of the cockpit and unbuckled himself from the harness, letting himself drop down. Fumbling for the release latch on the door, he found it and unlocked the door, which slid open. Climbing out, he got to his feet and stretched, yawning a little. He opened his eyes and froze. Just beginning to rise in the east among the departing storm clouds still raining on England, the sun illuminated a line of buildings before the light spilled over onto the battleground. The western half of New Oxford University had been reduced to a charred ruin and the part that had remained intact stood on shaky foundations. The battlefield was totally deserted.
Heero turned to look at the Wing Zero. Except for being splayed in the mud, it was mostly intact. "How did this happen?" he asked nothing and nobody. He already knew the answer anyway.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small gray box. Opening it, he stared at the circular red button, his finger hovering over it. "Never again."
Just as the skin of his fingertips touched it, someone slammed into him, sending both of them flying into a pond-sized puddle of rainwater. However, the deed had been done. The blast shook the earth, fire roiling over the surface of the puddle where he lay, pinned down by his assailant under the water. Finally, when the inferno had abated somewhat, the flames quenched by the still-falling rain, whoever it was released him, and they both broke the surface, gasping for air.
"What the hell did you do that for!" he asked, his gun at the person’s head. After a moment, he recognized who it was. "Heptamera?"
"You know, there are for more pleasant and unpleasant ways to die than being blown to pieces. Far more efficient methods, too. Yes, getting shot in the head is one of them." Heptamera wrung out her long hair and emptied the water out of her flight goggles.
Heero holstered his gun and walked out of the puddle. "One of these days I might pull the trigger without asking questions."
"I’ll take that chance," she muttered, watching him kick aside a smoldering chunk of armor. "But right now, we have to get you to a hospital."
She clambered out of the puddle and ran after him. "You’ve got a broken arm."
"No, I don’t."
"You’re pushing it, Heero."
"I don’t have a broken arm!" he insisted.
She poked his left arm. They both heard the sickening creak of bone grinding against bone, and only Heptamera saw the sudden clenching of his jaw. She could hear him think, < I’ll just pop it back into place… >
"I’m not letting you pop that thing back into place. You are coming with me, whether you like it or not," she ordered, startling him out of his thoughts. His mental wall came down again, and she was forced back into reality.
Pulling him by his good arm, she led him to the first ambulance that had arrived and handed him over to the medics. "Be careful. I think you’d better sedate him – he hijacked the last ambulance he was in," she informed the startled doctor.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Quatre emerged from the shelter first, blinking in shock and amazement. "This entire side of the university – it’s been wrecked!"
"Good. That means that I won’t be failing Calculus after all," Shadow grumbled, squinting in the bright sunlight. At the look on Quatre’s face, he chuckled. "I’m kidding."
Relena and Kira climbed out after him. "What – where’s Heero?" Relena asked, her eyes anxious.
"Heero?" asked Shadow. He and Kira exchanged puzzled looks.
Relena clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oops."
"Heero’s fine," a voice called from behind them. Heptamera walked towards them, still clad in her wet and blood-covered uniform, her goggles pushed back on her head and the headset slung around her neck. Relena stared at her in anguish. "Was he…?"
"This isn’t his blood. It’s Wayne Adanerhsuk’s, or, should I say, Michael Kushrenada’s. I’ll explain later. I believe that you may want these back."
She took off her ever-present satchel, set it on the ground and, rummaging through it, pulled out a small drawstring sack, handing it to Relena. "I knew this might happen, so I decided that I’d do a little salvage trip of your room when you weren’t there last week."
Relena loosened the drawstrings and peeked inside. "You saved my teddy bear and my picture of Heero!"
"She also saved the real Heero and what’s left of the ESUN government," her brother added, coming down the street towards them.
"How did you -?" Kira began, staring at Heptamera.
"She did the impossible – she convinced Colonel Sally to let her use her MS. She’s part of the reason why we aren’t all under the control of OZ Gen-X right now."
"Stop it. How’s Heero doing?" Heptamera asked.
"They had to sedate him before they could do anything. He had one fractured bone in his arm and that cut on his forehead, but he’s otherwise fine."
"How’d he break his arm?" Relena queried.
"He self-detonated his Wing Zero at dawn. Of course, he did it with the remote, so he only got a broken arm as a result."
"Only because you shoved him out of the way and into that puddle," countered Zechs. "He told us on the way to the hospital in London when the doctors asked him why he was soaked, along with some other interesting information. I suppose a large dose of morphine does that to a person. By the way, both Ambassador Une and Mrs. Darlian came to the consensus that school would do Relena more harm than good, so the three of you are coming back to Brussels as soon as possible. Kira and Shadow are staying here for awhile to clear things up with the dean."
"And I so wanted to avoid that Physics exam…" Shadow sighed. Kira elbowed him in the ribs. "Sorry," he muttered.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Heero felt someone gently shake his shoulder. He opened his eyes a little bit and saw Relena smiling at him. "Wake up. We’re here."
She unbuckled him and pulled him out of his seat and down the portable steps that had been wheeled to the side of her brother’s plane. He let his head droop a little as she straightened him up and stood next to him. She elbowed him, to no avail. The sudden flash of a camera fully awakened him. "What the hell?" he yawned, his hand consciously hiding his gaping mouth.
"Who just took a picture?" Heptamera’s voice demanded. He glanced over to see her walking towards him, carrying a pair of suitcases.
"Um, I did." A young woman standing about ten feet away from them blushed a little as she tucked a loose strand of shoulder-length, light brown hair behind one ear. "I’m Melanie Winner, Quatre’s sister. I heard that he was coming back from New Oxford, so I thought that I’d come by to say hello."
"Hi, Melanie!" Quatre called, lugging another set of suitcases over. "How’s Iria?"
Melanie rolled her eyes. "I’m fine, thank you for asking. Iria’s doing well. So, where are we headed?"
"Brussels. Is the car here?"
"Yeah. Um, miss, I’m sorry if you don’t being photographed –"
"No, it’s all right. Bright lights startle me, that’s all." Heptamera smiled at Melanie.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"HEY, KID!" the ringmaster bellowed from the other side of the main tent. Trowa Barton glanced up from the game of chess he was playing against one of the lion tamers to see him waving at him. "CALL FOR YOU!"
Trowa made one of the tightrope walkers watch the board while he was gone and walked over and took the receiver of the videophone from the ringmaster. "Hello?"
"Mr. Barton? This is Lucrezia Noin. Remember me? I’m from Preventer…"
"Yes, I remember you."
"We need you to come to an urgent meeting in Brussels as soon as possible. It involves something I can’t disclose over the phone. We can even fly you out."
"Who else is going?"
"A couple of your old friends." She stepped aside to let Duo stick his head into the picture. He waggled his fingers in a weird wave before allowing Lucrezia to step back in.
"So, do you need a ride?"
"I think I can manage."
He hung up and was immediately confronted by his surrogate sister, Catherine Bloom. "Trowa! What the hell do you think you’re doing?" she demanded.
"Going to Brussels. Don’t worry, I’ll come back in one piece."
She watched him as he strolled out the door, the chess game forgotten. "I can never trust him alone…" she muttered.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"Do you know what this is about?" Trowa asked Duo and Hilde when they three met up on the steps of the main embassy building in Brussels the next day.
"Not a clue. They pulled me off of a salvage run to come here and meet up with you, after they crammed me in with Wu-fei and his people for that phone call," Duo replied.
"‘Wu-fei and his people?’"
"The Preventer Agency."
"Hey! Long time no see!" someone called.
They turned to see Quatre barreling down the steps of the embassy. "Good, we’re all here," he panted as he unlocked the gates.
"Who’s all here?" queried Duo as he edged through the small gap.
"You three, me, Wu-fei, and Heero. All five of the Gundam pilots plus one non-Gundam pilot. Relena’s here, too."
"Heero? You mean you managed to find him?" asked Hilde.
"I didn’t. Someone else did."
He led them up the steps and into the grand foyer of the embassy, planted them in a cluster of armchairs, and disappeared down one of the side hallways. Hilde took the opportunity to glance around, noting that they weren’t the only ones in the room. There were several other armchairs and a few scattered sofas, most of which were occupied by and odd assortment of characters. Duo took a particular interest a young woman with waist-length blue-black hair wearing a gray flannel dress suit sitting near him. "Hi! So, what’re you in for?"
Startled, she turned around, revealing the brightest blue eyes he had ever seen. "Oh, hello. They called me last week and said I absolutely had to come on the next shuttle to Earth, so I figured I might as well. I’m Kiley Thomas, from L3. What’s your name?" she asked, offering her hand.
"I’m Duo Maxwell, from the L2 colony cluster. I work with the Sweeper Group." They shook hands.
"I do ambassadorial work for my colony. It’s busy, with all the people –"
"Attention, would all delegates from the Earth and the space colonies immediately report to the Aquarius Meeting Hall. I repeat, all delegates from the Earth and the space colonies immediately report to the Aquarius Meeting Hall."
"Excuse me, I must fly." The girl rose and hurried out of the room.
Hilde glanced at Duo. "Did that voice sound familiar to you?"
Duo shrugged. "Dunno. So, do we go or not?"
Suddenly, Trowa elbowed him in the rib cage. "Ow! What’d you do that for?"
"Look at this," Trowa replied, shoving something into his face.
Duo opened his mouth to protest, then caught sight of the picture in the frame in Trowa’s hand. Hilde leaned over Duo’s shoulder. "It can’t be… Heero doesn’t have a sister!" she exclaimed. "Does he?"
The picture showed five people standing in front of a grounded passenger plane, three of them staring out at the camera, the other two bending over a set of suitcases on the ground. Duo recognized four of them; Zechs Merquise, or whatever he called himself now, wearing aviator goggles and his flight uniform, stood behind his sister Relena, who was nudging a rather sleepy-looking Heero, both of them wearing nearly-identical uniforms. A little ways away from them was Quatre, who looked to be straightening up with two valises in hand, clad in the same uniform as Relena and Heero. And just next to him…
"She looks just like Heero! Only, she’s a girl," exclaimed Duo.
"Is that all you could say?"
"Well, she’s got green hair, which is odd, and she’s wearing the exact same suit as the other three. They’ve all got weird taste in clothes."
"Don’t insult her wardrobe, mister."
Duo looked up to see Diez standing over him. "You’re wanted in the Aquarius Meeting Hall, all of you."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Diez pointed Hilde up to a balcony above the stage and escorted Duo and Trowa up to the front row of the already overcrowded room. Trowa suddenly stopped Duo at the end of the row and whispered, "What’s he doing here?"
Duo looked down the row and saw the unmistakable long, near-white hair of Zechs Merquise. He also noticed that the last two empty seats happened to be right next to him. "You sit next to him, he doesn’t know you that well," he hissed.
"I’ll choke you with my braid if you don’t!"
"I’ll have Catherine throw knives at you!"
As they sat down, the lights dimmed and a spotlight was focused on the lectern in the middle of the stage. After a moment’s pause, Relena strode out of the wings in her trademark white suit and stood at the lectern. The room burst into applause. She held up her hand for silence.
"Good day, ladies and gentlemen. As you well know, we have had peace for over two years. There has been no strife in the Earth Sphere Unified Nation, and I congratulate you all for helping to make it possible."
There were cheers and more applause at this. Relena waited for it to die away before continuing. "Until about a month ago, we had no knowledge of civilizations existing in this universe other than ours. But then an alien object appeared in out skies, which some of you saw as a shooting star, and the rest of you as a meteor. I can safely tell you that it wasn’t a meteor or a shooting star, but a mobile suit superior to any we have ever created during our past wars, even the Gundams themselves."
Duo and Trowa exchanged questioning glances. How could something be stronger than a Gundam?
"The pilot of that mobile suit was a human ambassador from another planet outside our galaxy. Her name is Heptamera Xelcon, and she is the President Elect of the Intergalactic Peacekeeping Council, among other illustrious titles. I have spoken with her on several occasions following the failed coup d’etat of OZ Gen-X, during which she assisted us in defeating and capturing the instigators. She has made a proposal to me, as the Presiding Minister of the ESUN government, which weighs heavily on the future of Earth. She asked if we would like to join the Intergalactic Council of Planets. She is here now, and wishes to speak with you. Please welcome Miss Xelcon!"
There was enthusiastic applause and much craning of necks to catch a glimpse of the alien emissary hidden in the wings. When she finally stepped out, Trowa had to cough to cover his gasp of surprise, and Duo almost bounced out of his seat. "That’s her! That’s the girl from the picture in the lobby!" he hissed
"I’m surprised you didn’t know that sooner," whispered a voice from his right.
Sweat began to break out on his forehead as he slowly turned to see Zechs looking down at him with a strange half-smile on his face. "Uhm… I thought she looked a little funny. Weren’t you in that picture, too?"
"I was the pilot."
"Oh. Aren’t you Zechs Merquise?"
Just then, the speaker cleared her throat. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I am Heptamera Xelcon, the head of the Intergalactic Peacekeeping Council, or the IPC. Today, I would like to make an offer to you, the delegates of the Earth Sphere Unified Nation. The Intergalactic Council of Planets, or the Council, has authorized me to be the diplomatic tie between this planet and five hundred others in the Council – should you accept their invitation to join. As a member of the Council, you as a people are guaranteed trading partners, allies in case of attack, and communication and interaction with other species in this universe. The vast majority of these planets are dedicated to pacifism and talking out their conflicts rather than battling and, like you, have disarmed themselves.
"There is the exception of a handful of planets that are authorized to manufacture vessels of war and weapons in the case a war does break out, which hasn’t happened for over five centuries, since the creation of the Council. They, too, are dedicated to pacifism, but have declared that they will fight back if necessary to defend their allies and themselves. Every fifteen years, the old weapons are sold and melted down. The resulting metal is made into needed machinery, consumer products, public buildings, or non-military defense systems, so there isn’t a buildup of decrepit arms and resources are not wasted. I only know this because I am from Thelnaq, one of those armed planets, in fact the largest and most heavily armed in the Council.
"There is also the matter of the Intergalactic Strike Force, or the ISF. I am the head of that organization as well. The ISF is made up of beings from every planet in the Council. They are trained to use the weapons and machines in case war does break out or we are attacked by a non-Council member, the number of which dwarf those in the Council. Otherwise, members of the ISF act as bodyguards for delegates and statesmen, though some work as intelligence agents for the Intergalactic Intelligence Bureau or train new ISF members. In the entire five-hundred-year history of its existence, never has a single member of the ISF ever stepped out of line, stolen armaments, or committed an act of treason. The price is too high for them to risk it.
"Despite the fact that none of our members have ever declared war on another members, that does not include the conflicts provoked by non-Council members, who, time and time again, have attacked planets in the Council, causing us to mobilize for war. The longest battle we have ever against anyone lasted for three years against the combined forces of the Kondrossians and the Quinxelians, two planets that rival Thelnaq in size and resources, fifty years ago. Even now, piratical troops from their armies still plague Council members with raids and occasionally invasions. If you do join the Council, you risk involvement in these conflicts, though you are not required to do anything, nor are you obliged to so much as acknowledge that there is a war. However, if they did invade Earth, you would obviously be confronted with the problem on your own doorstep and forced to make a decision. As your allies, the other members of the Council would stand by your choice, be ! it to fight or to talk it out.
"If you wish for confirmation of anything I have said, I can give you references, phone numbers, addresses, et cetera. So I am asking you, as the delegates of the Earth Sphere United Nation, if you wish to join the Council. If you do not, then that is fine. I shall simply return to Thelnaq and notify the Council of your decision. If you do, you receive all that I have said, and no less or more. That I vow. You may have several days to mull over what I have said before you make your decision. Thank you."
Before she could move, Zechs’s hand shot up into the air. "Yes?" she asked.
His question was drowned out by the thunderous applause and the shifting of chairs. She bowed her head and hurried off the stage and down the stairwell to the floor of the meeting hall. Zechs rose and approached her, shaking her hand. "I wanted to ask what would happen if we do not join the Council."
"Oh. I can tell you this – this planet will more or less be left alone. We don’t try to make enemies on purpose."
Spotting Duo and Trowa, she smiled at them. "Hello. Who are you?"
"I’m Duo Maxwell, and this is Trowa Barton," Duo said quickly, before Trowa could object.
Zechs turned and stared at them. "I knew you looked familiar."
Heptamera’s expression had changed at their names. Her brow was creased with thought as she frowned slightly. "Duo and Trowa… Come with me. You too, Zechs."
"Wait a minute. Where are we going?" Duo interjected.
"To another meeting. You’re to be reunited with some of your old comrades."
"Where are they?" asked Trowa.
"Above your heads, where they’ve been all along."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
She collected Quatre, Kiley, and Wu-fei from the balcony where they had been sitting, above the stage, and led all six of them out the main doors and down one of the hallways, taking so many twists and turns and detours that they had lost track of where they were. Finally, she reached a door at the end of their route and, unlocking it, entered. They found themselves in a spacious study, with books lining three of the four walls, leaving one for a large picture window overlooking the gardens. Kira, Shadow, Hilde, and Ambassador Une stood by the window, turning around when the door opened. Sally and Lucrezia were stationed beside the door, rifles cocked. Relena looked up from a pile of papers in her hand and beamed at them. Heero emerged from another doorway and locked it behind him. "Heero!" cried Duo, pouncing on him and choking him in a bear hug.
"Get off of me. Are they all here?" he asked Heptamera.
"Just Diez is missing. She’s coming in a few minutes though." Seeing the look on Heero’s face, Heptamera shook her head. "You are paranoid, Heero."
"I’m not the one who’s risking assassination."
"Me? I’m expendable."
She registered a faint flicker of astonishment in his eyes. "You are not," he retorted.
Quatre touched her lightly on the shoulder. "He’s right. You’re not expendable."
"I’m not Heptamera," replied Diez, stripping off her face mask and removing the wig, shaking out her red hair.
"But I am," said a cold voice.
In the center of the room stood an enormous oak desk, polished to a high shine. Behind the escritoire stood a tall, oak-backed swivel chair with its back facing the door through which they had come. Its occupant pivoted around to greet them. "Hello, Diez. How did the speech go?"
"Good. Thank you for covering me." Heptamera swept her gaze across the group clustered behind Diez. "Please introduce yourselves."
They did as she asked. When Kiley had finished stammering out her name, Heptamera smiled pleasantly. "It’s a pleasure meeting you, though by the end of this you may wish that you never knew me. I am the real Heptamera Xelcon of Thelnaq."
She looked pointedly at Kiley. "I know you love to get into your roles, but I doubt an ambassador of the colonies would stutter, Ochena."
The girl chuckled at this. "You’re right, Commander. Thank you for the advice."
"By the way, a message came for you from your family via Headquarters. They wanted to know if you’d arrived safely, and I told them that you had, to my knowledge."
"Did she just call you Commander?" interjected Wu-fei.
"Unless my ears are deceiving me, she did."
"Do you really think that I’m not the type who has the ability to successfully train and lead five million beings?" she shot back.
"Women are weak and must be protected by those who are stronger than they," he replied coolly, eliciting a sharp gasp from Diez.
"Don’t talk like that in front of her!"
Heptamera shot her a quick glance. "He can say anything he wants. It’s not like I care about that rule, anyway."
"What rule?" asked Trowa, speaking up for the first time.
"That rule that some idiot made up a long time ago, saying that ‘he who speaks ill of any member of the ruling house of Thelnaq shall be reprimanded and, if it is the third offense, have his tongue cut out if the offended so desires.’"
Trowa glanced at Wu-fei and registered a slight twitch in his sword arm. "Of course," Heptamera continued, "That rule hasn’t been put in effect for at least three centuries, and even if it were still in use, I think you would rather not part with your tongue, Chang. Now, to business. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the recent uprising of a new faction that calls themselves ‘OZ Gen-X’ that wanted to return to the old ‘glory days’ of the Romefeller Foundations and OZ. Their leader was a young man who called himself Wayne Adanerhsuk during the time that he was at New Oxford, organizing the coup. His real name is Michael Kushrenada; Adanerhsuk is simply Kushrenada spelled backwards. From the files we were able to recover from their operation, he’s apparently the nephew of the late Treize Kushrenada and Mariemaia Kushrenada’s cousin."
She watched the various reactions at the news. Zechs looked mildly upset, Ambassador Une merely shocked, and Wu-fei about ready to kill her for mentioning the name ‘Treize.’ Everyone else seemed indifferent; at least they didn’t show any emotion.
"It’s also been all over the news that Heero showed up with his Wing Zero Custom and more or less wiped out all of their mobile suits with the help of an unidentified, friendly mobile suit. As you probably guessed, it was my mobile suit. What I called you here to tell you was that I believe that OZ Gen-X is not the driving force behind this. Oh, perhaps they thought they were, but they were most likely being duped and used as puppets, a sort of test run for something far more powerful and deadly."
"Which would be…?" Relena asked.
"Any number of possible enemies comes to mind. According to the information we have, there has been no move to construct mobile suits or the like in the colonies or on Earth since the Barton Revolt. This has to be a source outside of this galaxy, somewhere nearby, but far enough away that they cannot be detected."
"I’m going to get some agents on it right away," Une cut in.
"That would be fruitless, because the nearest civilized planet is about fifteen million light years away. Besides, you don’t have to. I’m going to get some IIB agents on it right now," Heptamera replied, typing rapidly on the computer console sitting on the desk.
"The Intergalactic Intelligence Bureau."
"Let me guess – you’re the leader of that, too?" queried Wu-fei, failing to hide his sarcasm. Diez shot him a dark look.
"However did you guess?" Heptamera asked dryly, still typing madly.
"Is there something that you don’t lead?" he implored, speaking the mind of everyone else in the room, including Ochena and Diez, who were staring at her in amazement. They evidently didn’t know that she was the head of the IIB.
"Yeah. Plenty. I’m only the head of three organizations, and they’re the three you know of."
She glanced up from her computer screen and saw the looks on their faces. "What?" she asked, genuinely bewildered. Her mind clicked. "Oops, said too much," she muttered, smacking herself on the forehead.
"She just redefined ‘overachiever,’" Duo mumbled.
"I heard that."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
They had finally left the study past midnight, heading for the Preventer base nearby to catch up on dinner or sleep. Heptamera, however, was both wide-awake and not hungry. She slipped away from the cafeteria and headed towards the hospital wing. Standing at the door of the ICU, she waved to one of the guards, who let her in. Moving past the other cots, she stopped by the last one, stuck in a corner. Standing over Michael Kushrenada as he lay beneath a mass of tubes and bandages, his breathing shallow and heartbeat weak, she whispered, "Who did this to you?"
He didn’t respond; she hadn’t expected him to. Resigned, Heptamera gently placed her hand on his forehead and closed her eyes, entering his confused, distorted mind. Images flashed by – Michael as a baby, watching his uncle, a nine-year-old version of the late Treize Kushrenada, do rock-paper-scissors. Michael’s mother, a woman in her early twenties who looked amazingly like her brother Treize dying in the hospital, a two-year-old Michael clinging to her hand. Michael at the age of ten listening to his uncle’s speeches with Mariemaia, an infant of two, sitting next to him on his aunt Leia Barton’s lap; Michael as a sixteen-year-old watching colonial television and seeing his uncle die onscreen. Michael seated in an Earth-bound shuttle, silently vowing revenge as he hurtled towards Earth; Michael meeting a strange, shadowy figure in an abandoned bunker who promised to help him get his revenge, even as the earth shook with the ongoing battle between the Gundam! s and the Mariemaia Army. Eventually, it ended with the image of a tall young man with near-white hair and violet eyes, a mask concealing half of his face. He was holding a gun and saying, "Our contract has been terminated, Kushrenada, and your usefulness to Black Cobra has ended. Goodbye, little avenger."
Shots were fired over and over again, piercing his body so that the blood gushed endlessly. Heptamera drew back with a gasp, opening her eyes, the pain almost unbearable. A steady whine drew her attention, and she looked up to see that line on the monitor showing his brain activity had gone flat. He had just gone into a coma. As the doctors hastened to see what was wrong, Heptamera rocked back on her heels, feeling as though her heart was about to give out as his mind had. "It is Seize… he’s back, and he’s here, out to kill us all…"
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Shadow strolled by the ICU ward and glanced in, bored, before continuing on. Suddenly, he realized what he had seen through the window and backpedaled. "Oh, shit…"
He ran into the ICU, switching on the two-way radio hanging from his belt. "Colonel Sally, come in, this is Lieutenant Taylor. We have a problem down in the hospital wing, ICU ward. Colonel Sally, come in!" He knelt down by one of the bodies on the floor and felt for a pulse, getting none.
The radio crackled to life. "This is Colonel Sally. What’s going on, Lieutenant?"
"The three guards and one of the doctors have been either knocked out or killed, and the most of the patients have all disappeared!"
"Get a squad down here immediately! And contact Agent Chang. He and his friends may want to look into this."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
Duo stirred and opened one sleepy eye. Someone was shaking him violently, shouting his name. He sat up, startled, when he recognized the intruder. "Hilde?"
"Who else, silly? Get up, get up, get up! You sleep like a rock."
"I feel like a slept on a rock. Don’t they have a more comfortable bed?"
"Never mind that! Hurry up, we have to get moving! There’s an emergency meeting going on down in the main hall," Hilde informed him, shoving his clothes into his hands and walking into the bathroom.
"What for?" he asked as he hopped around on one foot, pulling on his customary black pants.
"Seems like the guys who were supposed to be either critically injured or knocked out were all body-napped last night. Whoever took them killed the doctor and one of the guards, and the two remaining guards can’t remember seeing a thing before they were knocked out. Ambassador Une’s calling a meeting of all the former MS pilots."
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"I don’t know why I even bothered to go back there for you. I should have just let you die. Why…" Seize muttered, staring down at the comatose teenager strapped to the stretcher before him. Guillermo François, Technical Chief of Black Cobra, bustled around in the background, pretending to be busy but really listening in to what his prince was saying.
"It’s because you owed me a favor, Seize."
He turned to see his half-sister Wendy enter the hospital ward, dressed in a tight nurse’s uniform that emphasized her figure. Guillermo whistled under his breath. "Look who’s here. Hello, gorgeous."
She must have heard him, because he suddenly found himself pinned to the wall, her knife at his throat. "Excuse me, Casanova, but what did you just say?"
"N-n-nothing." He held back a sigh of relief as she let go of him and walked back to the young man’s bedside, slipping the knife back into its sheath in her boot.
"You’ll be all right, Michael," she whispered, stroking his thick red hair.
™™ ™ Z ˜ ˜ ˜
"It has been confirmed that all of the patients in the hospital wards who were identified as members of OZ Gen-X were taken away. Your choice to self-detonate the Wing Zero would be applauded, Heero, except that we need it now more that ever." Ambassador Une stared at him, her eyes drilling into his forehead. "According to the intelligence reports Commander Xelcon received from the IIB, which were collaborated with out own reports, these is a steady flow of shipments between the planet Pluto and an area about ten million light years outside of this galaxy. They are massing their forces for an apparent invasion."
She glanced around the table. All five of the former Gundam pilots sat to her right along side Lucrezia and Zechs, with Sally, Heptamera, Diez, Ochena, Kira, Shadow, and Hilde at her left. Relena had insisted on coming, sitting at the other end of the table.
"There is a way we can mitigate the situation…" Heptamera interjected.
"How?" asked Quatre.
Heptamera turned her hard, Prussian blues eyes on him. "Beat them at their own game. I can have the same amount of mobile suits and ISF troops transported to Earth within the space of three weeks that would take them two months to stockpile."
There was a long pause. To everyone’s surprise, it was Relena who spoke up first. "So, what are we waiting for?"