Author's Note: Most of this story is locked in a hard drive on a dead pc, but I had sent this chapter to my beta reader, who just recently found the copy in her email archive. Yay! So, here's a long-overdue update. More will follow once I've rescued the rest of my files.

Chapter 26

SSDF Orbital Station 002

Mars orbit

Duke cheered with the rest of the crews in the mech hangar when Dr. Korone's triumphant announcement rang through the bay. But he was no closer than before to finding a way to shield the mecha from the alien energy weapon, so he immediately turned back to his work deep inside the innards of the partially disassembled Red-Eyes Black Dragon. He had already pulled the fried components from the main cockpit in the mech's "skull." Now, he was yanking out the linked units in the secondary TEM relay.

Ordinarily, he would have turned such hands-on grunt work over to one of the junior techs, but there was something fishy about the way the feedback had cascaded through the mech's systems, even affecting Serenity Wheeler in her Anchor pod in the control center on the station, that made him decide to do it himself. Just a few more chip sets, buffer boxes, and a few miles of wire, and he could retire to the lab with his new acquisitions and continue what Dr. Korone had ghoulishly labeled his "mech autopsy."

Several hours later, Duke crawled back out of the Red-Eyes' torso, ready for a much needed break to stretch his tired and cramped limbs, and to give his overworked brain a rest. Grease streaked his forehead where he had swiped at the sweat trickling into his eyes, and his hair was in a state of disarray that was not the result of half an hour in front of a mirror with a large supply of styling products. Duke wiped his hands down the front of his borrowed coveralls, then scrubbed at his face. The last few days had taken their toll on him. He was working around the clock to find a solution to the problem General Anderson had set before him: find a way to protect their pilots from the devastating new weapon. Unfortunately, he was beginning to wonder if such a thing were even possible.

Duke stretched, cat-like, trying to ease some of the kinks out of his aching back and shoulders. He leaned against the Red-Eyes' torso, letting the inert machine take his weight while his gaze roamed idly around the bustling hangar and finally came to rest on the Blue-Eyes White Dragon across the bay. The Blue-Eyes team was still hard at work, various technicians taking baseline readings on the new gestalt entity while others, mostly emergency personnel, stood at their posts and hoped they would not be needed. From his position, he could see Gears and Dr. Korone up on the platform near the top of the maintenance gantry that held the Blue-Eyes in place. A couple of techs from the mech's ground crew were crawling over the outside of the machine, testing calibrations, and a very bored looking EMT slouched against one of the Blue-Eyes' enormous "boots," making small talk with her partner.

A frown slid across Duke's brow. Something seemed out of place or... missing? Quickly, he scanned the area around the Blue-Eyes again, noting the technicians, the EMTs, Gears and Korone... The frown deepened. He widened his search, turning in place to take in the rest of the hangar visible from his vantage point, and still could not find what he knew should be there.

There was no mistake. Mokuba's Anchor Specialist was nowhere to be found. Concerned now, Duke climbed up onto the Red-Eyes' gutted torso and scanned the bay again. Still no sight of Alister. The wrongness of the situation nagged at him. Where had Alister gone? Maybe he had needed a restroom break, but even so, he should have called in one of the other Anchor Specialists to take his place until he got back. It was unconscionable for an Anchor Specialist to leave his Anchor unattended during a live gestalt. What if there was a problem during the gestalt? Worse, what if there was a problem during retrieval? Even with the emergency personnel and Korone on-site, Mokuba might need his Anchor Specialist's help. After all, Korone's attention had to be on the Duelist. Gears was rightly concentrating on the gestalt entity and the AI. The Anchor Specialist focused on the ins and outs of the Anchor pods and secondary TEM connections, knew them better and more intimately than even Duke did. He shook his head. He would speak with Dr. Korone later about Alister's dereliction of duty. As head of the Duelist/Anchor Support department, the Anchor Specialists were Korone's responsibility and Alister's discipline would fall under his authority.

Resolution made, Duke slid from his perch atop the partially disassembled mech. He decided to find the nearest comm-unit and call for another Specialist to replace Alister until the missing man returned. Disciplinary measures could come later; right now, it was more important to get someone down here in case something went wrong.

No sooner had the thought formed, than Duke was almost blinded by a massive flash of acid green light exploding from the open hatch of the Blue-Eyes White Dragon's secondary cockpit. Instinctively, he had thrown up his arm to protect his eyes. Now, he lowered his arm and stared, aghast, at the mech. His heart pounding as if it would smash its way out of his chest, he gulped in a much needed breath, then shook off the temporary paralysis of shock and sprinted toward the stricken mech.

By the time he had cleared half the distance, the EMTs were in motion, swarming up the gantry toward the open cockpit. Black smoke, carrying with it the stench of fried circuitry and burning wires, poured from the opening. An alarm began to shrill somewhere in the background, drowning out the shouts of the technicians converging on the mech. Some portion of his mind not narrowed in on the imperative to get there, to help, noted the fire suppression crew approaching at a run.

He reached the foot of the gantry, skidding to a halt just as Korone jumped from the ladder and reached up to swing a distraught and protesting Gears the rest of the way to the floor. Korone grabbed her arm when she would have leaped onto the ladder and climbed back up.

"We're in the way up there!" Korone gave her a shake. "I know you're worried about the AI, but think. We have to wait for the EMTs to get Seto out, then we can go back up."

Korone's words finally seemed to get through to her. She nodded, wrapping trembling arms around herself, her chin sinking toward her chest. Only then did Duke realize she had left her ubiquitous datalink behind on the platform. Without it, she seemed smaller somehow, as if she were shrinking in on herself to make up for the loss of her comforting shield. For his part, Korone just looked pissed. Duke hurried to join them.

"What's going on?" The smoke had thinned, drawn away by the station's atmosphere controls and the efforts of the fire crew. "Was there an explosion?"

Korone shook his head. "We were on the upper gantry. I didn't hear or feel anything like an explosion. What did you see?"

"I saw a flash of green light, then all this smoke."

"The secondary TEM unit malfunctioned," a small voice said.

Both men turned to stare at Gears. Duke recovered his voice first. "What? What do you mean the secondary TEM malfunctioned? It was perfectly fine before!"

Her chin came up, but it wasn't a gesture of defiance, that much was made clear by her flat response. "I saw it spike on my datalink. A surge of energy, too much for the compensators to handle, and too fast for me to do anything." Her shoulders moved in a helpless shrug. "I've never seen anything like it. I didn't know what to do, and now I can't do anything, because somebody yanked me down here without my datalink and -- oh, god, what if they weren't far enough along when the spike happened and Captain Kaiba's trapped in gestalt?!"

Duke shot a horrified look at Korone, who explained, "Mokuba had just initiated retrieval when... whatever it was… happened. Hopefully, the retrieval was far enough along that Seto made it out on his own. If that's the case, he'll have one hell of a gestalt hangover, but he'll be okay."

"And Mokuba?"

Korone looked torn between fury and fear. "If the explosion, or whatever it was, was in the secondary TEM -- the one Mokuba was directly interfaced with during the retrieval..." He let the unhappy thought trail off unfinished. Some things were better left unspoken, in case speaking them made them come true.

Duke shivered. "Fuck."

"Yeah," Korone said softly.

A few minutes later, the EMTs had removed both Anchor and Duelist from the mech. Both were unconscious, though Duke wondered if the reason Seto was unconscious might be because they had been forced to sedate him. He did not think that even the backlash from the TEM failure would have kept Seto Kaiba from his little brother, otherwise.

With the injured on their way to Medical, and the fire out, Duke, Gears, and Korone wasted no time in examining the damaged mech. Gears leaped onto the gantry lift and sent it racing upward at top speed, clearly intent on retrieving her datalink and finding out what had happened. Korone swung up onto the ladder and began climbing. Duke followed.

At the top, they found Gears already hunched over her datalink, which was no longer connected to the mech. She punched up new screens as fast as her fingers could fly over the controls, shaking her head and muttering to herself. Duke crouched down beside her and peered at the small display screen. "Is that the spike?"

"Um... Yeah." Distracted, barely seeming aware of his presence or that of Korone behind them, she muttered, "I've never seen anything like it."

Duke leaned over so he could see the screen in question -- and froze. His hands clenched, and the breath hung in his throat. When he could speak again, he growled, "I have."

That got her attention. Gears stared at him with wide eyes. "What--?"

But Duke wasn't listening. He sprang to his feet, nearly losing his balance. Korone grabbed his arm to steady him. Duke yanked it free. "Where's Alister?"

"What? He's..." Korone frowned. "He should have been with Mokuba when the EMTs pulled him out of the cockpit."

"But he wasn't. He wasn't at his post earlier, either. I was looking for him right before the explosion, and noticed he was gone."

"Shit." Korone dragged his fingers through his hair. "Where's the nearest comm-unit?"

Duke pointed to the nearest emergency kiosk, blocky red cylinders that held first-aid kits, fire-extinguishers, eye-wash stations… and comm-units.

"You two stay here and see what you can do for Blue-Eyes," Korone said, stepping onto the lift with fury sparking in his green eyes. "I'll contact security... and General Anderson."

"I'm going to have to initiate stasis to stabilize the AI," Gears mumbled in response. She still seemed to be talking more to herself than to them.

Duke leaned over the rail and called down to Korone, who was already descending toward the floor. "Get some guards down here, too. I don't want anyone but the three of us coming anywhere near this mech until we find out what the hell is going on."

Korone acknowledged him with a nod, then jumped from the lift while it was still three feet off the floor and ran toward the emergency kiosk. Duke shivered from a sudden chill.

It looked like they had uncovered their saboteur. Now, all they had to do was find him.