Wufei sat in Nataku's cockpit,
staring in bewilderment at his latest scan results.
This... does not make sense. But then, nothing about this... situation... has made sense from the start!
According to all his instruments -- and the evidence of his own eyes -- Nataku was floating in... nothing. Space was at least black, with visible stars and the occasional man-made object. This was really nothing -- a sort of hollow empty non-colour that had seemed to suck at him, trying to pull him out of Nataku's hatch until he'd slapped the 'emergency close' button.
Wufei was profoundly grateful that Nataku's external cameras would only show the void outside as static-streaked gray.
There was no air out there; Nataku's environmental systems had automatically switched to space mode, 'seal and recycle'. However, it wasn't a vacuum either; if the sensors had detected vacuum, he wouldn't have been able to open the hatch. And when he had opened the hatch, he hadn't been blasted out into nowhere by explosive decompression.
That was another thing Wufei was grateful for. Knowing what was out there was bad enough. Eternally drifting through nothing, getting further from Nataku with each second, that soul-sucking void all around with no walls to block it out...
Wufei realised that he was shivering and hurriedly blocked off that train of thought.
He'd never thought he'd actually miss Duo's incessant inane babble; but now Wufei thought he'd give almost anything to hear that manic voice blasting out of his com. Even if he called him "Wuffie". Or "Wu-man".
Hell, he'd even take a couple of discs from the L2 pilot's ridiculous antique music collection. What was that one he played over and over last month? 'They Might Be Giants', that was it... we all had that one album off by heart by the time Heero 'lost' the disc.
Nataku drifted in the void, and if you listened very carefully, you might have heard a Chinese boy quietly humming 'Birdhouse In Your Soul'.
* * * * *
Trowa looked up from where he was helping Quatre out of Sandrock's cockpit.
"... Duo's going to crash."
Deathscythe came swooping in erratically and, sure enough, looked to be heading for a large tree instead of the clearing; but straightened out at the last moment and made what could be termed a 'good' landing. (As in, 'any landing that doesn't leave your Gundam in flaming pieces...') It was a four-point landing. Two knees, left hand, and face. Afterwards, Deathscythe just... knelt there. Faceplanted. The scythe was, however, firmly planted upright in the ground... still active.
Wing landed seconds later, staggering a couple of paces before coming to a halt. Heero dropped out of the hatch almost before it stopped, moving immediately to the grovelling Gundam.
"Duo? Duo! Open up! Can you hear me?"
The hatch opened and Duo tumbled out limply, landing on top of a startled Heero. They ended up with Heero flat on his back in the dirt, Duo sprawled over his chest and stomach.
"Duo? Are you OK?"
Hazy violet eyes blinked at Heero through Duo's messy bangs. "Heero... you..."
"You work out too much."
Heero blinked, confused. "Huh?"
"You are not... not a very soft cushion to land on."
Heero scowled, torn between relief and annoyance. "Hn. Baka."
"But you love me anyway," slurred Duo, grinning despite a split lip and rapidly bruising cheek.
"Baka. Come on."
"Where we goin'?" Duo asked blearily as Heero helped him stand.
"Inside. You need to get cleaned up and have those cuts taken care of, and both you and Quatre need rest. How did you get in such bad shape?"
"Uh... I think I... kinda forgot to put my harness back on after I was gonna go see what was wrong with the Q-bean. I think I broke one of the screens when I landed on it just now... hey, no, come on Heero, we gotta go back and find Wufei! We can't just leave him there!"
"We'll find him, but first you are getting some medical attention."
"And what do you mean, 'kinda forgot'?"
Successfully distracted, Duo let Heero help him inside. Trowa followed them, carrying a shivering Quatre in his arms.
Half an hour later, Duo's cuts had been treated and he was tucked into bed, assured by Heero -- or was it a threat? -- that he would be woken up every hour until he was over his concussion. Quatre's shock had been dealt with by a combination of hot sweet tea and Trowa, and he was tucked into bed in the same room as Duo with a goodnight kiss and a comforting parting silence.
After getting all four Gundams under cover -- and finally shutting off Deathscythe's scythe -- Heero and Trowa met in the safehouse kitchen to discuss their next step. Despite Duo's dogged insistence that if they just kept looking they were sure to find Wufei and Shenlong, they already knew that Shenlong, at least, was nowhere near the battlefield.
Although the Doctors would have preferred it if they had continued to work independantly, the five boys had long since decided that they were going to work together. Heero declared it was more efficient; Duo insisted that he'd go "stark raving bonkers, not just a little whacko like I am now, man, it wouldn't be pretty," without the company of people who knew who and what he was. Trowa and Quatre had been 'together' almost since their first meeting and would probably have teamed up even if the other pilots had insisted on staying separate. Wufei had worked alone for several months after the other pilots joined forces, but eventually even he gave in. (Duo insisted it was his nagging that had done the trick. Heero said he'd seen the logic of the idea. Quatre privately believed that Wufei had been lonely.)
In any case, if they were to work together, the Gundam pilots had reasoned that they had to be able to find each other. Normally this wasn't a problem; but there had been occasions when they hadn't been able to contact each other. Most notably, when one or another had been captured by OZ.
The fact that the Gundams were almost undetectable by instruments was very useful when they were hiding from OZ, but also made it much easier for OZ to keep a captured Gundam's location secret. So, they had installed 'screamers' in all of them. These little devices were buried deep within the Gundams' central torso, were impossible to remove in a hurry without destroying the main computers, and had only one purpose; to make as much electronic 'noise' as possible. They had a direct connection to the main and backup power supplies, could operate even if all the other systems were down, and were so powerful that they were almost impossible to jam. Deathscythe, with all its jamming and stealth equipment turned up fully, could blank one out; but, as Duo proudly declared after they tried that particular experiment, "Shinigami's special, man!"
When it had become clear that Shenlong was nowhere to be seen on the battlefield, Heero had sent out a signal that should have triggered Shenlong's screamer if it was within two hundred miles. There had been no response. Even so, they had stayed far longer than was prudent, searching for anything that might give them a clue to Wufei's fate. Duo had been looking for his friend, certain that he would be found alive -- probably in bad shape, sure, but alive; Heero and Trowa, after seeing the size of the crater left by the explosion of the weapon Wufei had attacked, had been looking for pieces of his Gundam. Quatre had gone through the motions for a short while, then just sat down in Sandrock and stayed quiet until the others were ready to go.
Now, Trowa and Heero sat down at the kitchen table and stared into their coffee mugs.
After a while, it was Trowa who spoke first. "It's possible that OZ picked him up after the explosion, and got him into a shielded bunker before we realised he was gone. If the signal never got to the screamer, and he couldn't trigger it himself..."
Heero nodded. "If his Gundam was destroyed, there should have been something remaining for us to find. Capture is the most likely explanation."
Trowa finished his coffee and stood up. "I'll contact the Doctors. You search OZ communications."
Heero stood and went to get his laptop without bothering to answer. Quietly, under his breath, he muttered, "Ninmu ryoukai."
* * * * *
"When the ship runs out of ocean, and the vessel runs aground, land is where we know the boat is found..."
Wufei sang quietly to himself to block out the silence as he worked. Earlier, he'd opened Nataku's hatch briefly -- keeping a firm grip on his seat's safety harness, just in case -- and thrown out a small metal plate. He'd then followed it with Nataku's scanners as it drifted slowly away, until it went out of range.
Which confirms that I am, indeed, in some sort of void and not simply having my instruments -- and eyes -- fooled, Wufei mused. However, this brings up another logical inconsistency. The plate drifted directly outwards, as if it were in zero G; but I certainly seem to have gravity... and when I dropped it within the cockpit, it fell normally. Localised gravity, only within Nataku?
Humming his way through a portion of the song where he wasn't quite sure of the words, he sat back and looked over the preparations for his next experiment.
If there was anything other than him in this empty place, he'd reasoned, it was outside the range of his instruments. Therefore, he had to extend that range. The simplest way of doing so was to somehow send out a stronger signal, then wait with his sensors at full sensitivity to see if anything bounced it back at him. And since he saw no merit in half-hearted measures, he was going to use his screamer.
Most of the time he'd spent setting up for this had been dedicated to making sure he could turn the screamer off quickly. (After all, while the screamer was on it would be blinding all his instruments, and it was designed to be difficult to turn off -- what was the good of an unjammable emergency locator if an OZ soldier could just flick a switch and render it useless?) So, he now had a small device wired into his keyboard that would quickly send the (rather long and very complicated) shutdown code when he pushed a button, and also signal Nataku's sensors to switch back on and begin searching for any return signal.
He settled back in his chair, checked for the third time that everything he wanted off was OFF, reached beneath his seat and flicked a small hidden switch.
* * * * *
The soft, broken whimpering that had long ago replaced screams and pleas choked, gurgling softly, and then stopped. The robed man frowned, displeased. It was always so much better when the sacrifice lasted until the end of the summoning...
It matters not. The moment has come.
He threw his head back and raised his hands to the dark sky, feeling the cooling blood trickle down his arms and chin, reaching out with the power raised by the ceremony, searching for a call--
There! The strongest I've ever felt! This will truly be a magnificent demon!
He coiled the power around the call, and pulled.
* * * * *
Wufei had switched songs, since he'd discovered that he'd forgotten enough of 'Women and Men' to make singing it annoying.
"I lost my lucky ball and chain, now she's four years gone--" No. I'm not going to sing that one. "Hmmm... Particle man, particle man, doing the things a particle can..." Better.
That should be long enough...
He reached for the button to shut off the screamer--
--and was thrown out of his chair as Nataku jerked backwards and shook violently around him.
For what seemed like a long time, all Wufei could do was wedge himself into a corner under one of Nataku's panels and hold on. At one point something crashed into the bulkhead next to him, just missing his head, and he swore as he recognised his screamer shutoff, trailing loose wires; then he covered his head with his arms and winced as the contents of the toolbox followed it.
Finally the shaking settled down somewhat; Wufei flung himself back into his seat and snapped his harness together faster than he ever had before. He spared a moment to hope that the shaking wouldn't get worse again, as that would make the litter of tools and broken components on the floor dangerous instead of merely an irritation; then he brought up Nataku's external cameras.
A sickly green glow was coiled around Nataku, continually shifting from one shape to another. Snaky coils melted into grasping hands flowed into clinging tentacles grew into snaky coils...
Wufei stared open-mouthed for long seconds. That... that can't be real! He fumbled blindly at the controls, eyes never leaving the screen, then abruptly stopped himself. The screamer! I have to shut it off before I bring up the sensors! Shooting a frustrated glare at the screamer shutoff (presently sliding across the floor in three pieces), he braced himself against the buffeting as much as possible and began typing in the shutdown code.
On his third try, he managed to type the code in without hitting any wrong keys as the energy jolted Nataku around. As the screamer shut off, the jolting stopped. Surprised, Wufei glanced back at the screen, and saw that the energy had drawn back slightly; then it coiled carefully back around Nataku and the jolting resumed.
That... whatever it is... was it attracted by the screamer? he wondered. It seems likely... now, what is it and where is it taking me?! Quickly, Wufei brought up every scanner Nataku had.
It wasn't any form of energy or radiation that he could identify, that was certain; yet Nataku's detectors did register its presence. They had no idea what they were detecting, and that was giving the computer fits; finally, Wufei had to order it to stop trying to analyse the energy, just track it. The computer still insisted on flashing 'UNIDENTIFIED' at him, but at least it wasn't on its way to mechanical hysteria any more.
The energy stretched off in the direction it seemed to be dragging Nataku -- it was hard to tell, without anything to measure progress against, but the more violent jerks all seemed to be directed that way. It trailed off beyond his sensors' range, but there did seem to be... something... out there; some sort of whorl of energy? It was impossible to tell for sure; every time he tried to refine the scan, he lost it.
Wufei sighed. It looks like this is going to go on for a while. He set the computer to warn him if anything changed, and cautiously released his harness. While I have the chance, I'd better tidy this mess up... before things get really violent again, and I end up impaled with a screwdriver!
* * * * *
He had been briefly confused when the call cut off; perhaps the demon felt no need to continue once it had been contacted? It was surprisingly hard to feel when it was silent. Only the traces of his own magic clinging to it had allowed him to grasp it again. Still, he had it firmly once more, and it was slowly drawing nearer.
An undetectable demon? This raises interesting possibilities...
* * * * *
Heero slipped silently into the room and paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. No need to switch on a light; Duo might need to be woken up, but Quatre certainly didn't.
He stood by Duo's bed and frowned slightly, considering the best way to go about this. After bouncing around Deathscythe's cockpit during his 'landing', there wasn't much of the braided baka that wasn't bruised or cut... and even though he was currently full of painkillers and probably wouldn't notice if Heero poked him right on top of one, Heero definitely didn't want to risk aggravating any of the wounds.
It would... reduce his effectiveness on their next mission.
Yeah. That was it.
No other reason.
The largest undamaged area of skin that Heero could locate was Duo's left cheek... so he reached out, not ungently, and patted him a couple of times.
"Duo. Wake up."
No response. Duo slept on in chemical bliss.
Frowning, Heero bent closer to the sleeping boy. He didn't want to raise his voice; Quatre was a notoriously light sleeper.
"Duo." He patted the cheek again, then cupped his hand around Duo's chin and bent closer still, peering to see if there was any response.
Duo could hear Heero's voice calling his name softly, and felt a hand gently grasp his chin. He felt as if he were floating... was he dreaming?
Mmm... niiiiice... gotta be a dream. He'd never act like this for real...
Heero froze as Duo's eyes fluttered open... and he smiled.
It wasn't Duo's normal, slightly manic, "Hey-man-life's-just-a-ball" grin. It was a genuine, warm, sweet smile.
Then Duo reached up, wrapped his arms around Heero's neck, and pulled him down for a long, deep, passionate kiss.
Heero's brain shut down. He found himself responding without quite being sure what he was doing... just that it felt good.
Eventually, Duo loosened his grip slightly and smiled up into Heero's wide eyes. "Mmm... tha'ss good, Heero. Wish I had the guts to do that in real life... but you'd prob'ly kill me. Guess I'll just have to settle for dreams, huh?" Then he pulled Heero into a tight hug and dropped immediately back into sleep.
Heero could swear that, physically impossible for humans or not, Duo was purring.
He considered his options.
He could wake Duo up and demand an explanation... but that would wake Quatre. And besides, he needed to think about this himself. A lot.
He settled for just disentangling himself from the hug -- an apparently simple operation that took a surprisingly long time -- and went back downstairs.
* * * * *
Wufei was under a panel, stretching for the last elusive drill bit, when the alarm he'd set on the computer went off. The first thing he did was leap back into his seat and strap in; the next was to fling the drill bit into the tool box and secure it quickly in its compartment. No way am I going to be caught rattling around in here with random shrapnel again! Then he looked up at the screen and caught his breath.
Ah. It seems we sped up while I was playing 'Hunt the Spanner'.
The grasping coils of energy had turned Nataku so that the Gundam now faced in the direction of travel. Wufei therefore had an absolutely magnificent view in the main screen of what, exactly, he was being pulled towards.
The previously glimpsed 'whorl of energy' was revealed as an immense swirling funnel, glowing the same sickly green as the energy trails pulling at Nataku -- which, Wufei could now see, came from the depths of the funnel... and were pulling him into the mouth as he watched.
As Nataku tumbled into the funnel, the energy coils released their grip and dissipated. They weren't needed any more; the funnel was exerting some sort of suction, and Nataku gained speed quickly, beginning to spin. Wufei braced himself and gritted his teeth as the ride went from rough to violent to Ten Minute Wash Cycle; then he caught a glimpse of the funnel's mouth drawing closed behind him, and some instinct prompted him to squeeze his eyes shut as there was a bright green flash and he was once again blasted through the surface of reality.
It was different this time.
For one thing, he didn't lose consciousness. Wufei was unsure whether this was a good or bad thing -- good, because he was aware of what was happening to him; or bad, because he was aware of what was happening to him.
When he opened his eyes, Nataku was streaking down a blindingly white tunnel of energy, much brighter than the aura of sickly smoky green that still surrounded the Gundam. Wufei stared in awe as crackling arcs of energy flickered across the breadth of the tunnel in front of him, looking like lightning strikes or electrical arcs strong enough to power a colony for a year.
Then one of those arcs flashed across the tunnel just as Nataku sped past.
Wufei convulsed in his seat, thrashing against his safety harness as white energy blazed through his Gundam and into him, pouring into his body as his hands clenched on the controls. For a moment it seemed as if he was flying along the corridor alone, no Gundam, no Nataku, just him alone feeling the ache of wounds across his chest and back as the energy poured painlessly through his body and into something small and fragile and unspeakably precious near his heart--
--and then Nataku flew out of the energy stream, and Wufei found himself back in his seat, hanging limply in his harness as he gasped for breath.
It didn't hurt. Not exactly.
Wufei found himself thinking of the time he was three, back on his home colony, and he had stuck a metal skewer into one of the ventilation slots at the back of his father's laptop computer. It had been plugged into the mains at the time. That hadn't hurt, either; but he could still distinctly remember waking up halfway across the room with all his muscles shivering, struggling to breathe.
This felt the same way, but it certainly hadn't been electricity; when he managed to raise his head, all of Nataku's internal screens and systems were blinking calmly at him, working as if nothing had happened.
This... definitely did not happen... when I went into that void-space. It was a struggle to think clearly; his mind kept slipping back to that fourteen-year-old memory. I passed out. And I woke up feeling... battered... with a headache... not limp and wrung out, like now. And Nataku... Nataku's systems all crashed. I had to restart...
Slowly, as he forced himself to think, the haze lifted from his mind and strength began to return to his muscles. It still took him completely by surprise, however, when the green haze clinging to the Gundam flashed a brilliant emerald -- and Nataku slammed to a stop.
* * * * *
Trowa looked up from his computer. "Heero."
"Time to wake Duo up again."
"...you do it."
* * * * *
Wufei looked, surprisingly calmly, at yet another new image on his main viewscreen.
Nataku seemed to be sitting in a canyon, leaning back against the rocky end wall. He had a good view of the canyon walls vanishing into the night-time darkness, and a range of hills in the distance blocking off the lower stars. There seemed to be a flickering light -- firelight? -- coming from a little way in front of Nataku's feet, and his external pickups were relaying the sound of an excited conversation to him.
He wasn't particularly interested in that right now, however.
He was busy looking at the moons.
Both of them.
Now, how would Duo put this? Oh, yes... he thought, nearly chuckling with fatigue- and shock-induced hysteria.
"Nataku, I don't think we're in Kansas any more..."
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