The Winds of Change
"It is. We've found them."
"Them? How many?"
"Three – or what's left of them."
"Three all in one place? What about the others?"
"Brussels is still a no-go, and there's nothing on the other."
There was a pause.
"How much do we have?"
"Not much. Maybe not even one, even with parts from all three."
"What about using the raw stock?"
"Not compatible. These things run on completely different systems. It would be like trying to make a computer out of a microwave."
A low chuckle echoed. "Point. So we're running on luck?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. Depends what our brothers in the Colonies can do."
"We'll just have to hope."
"Another slow day?"
Duo grinned wryly. "How could you tell?"
"Oh, just the way you dumped your stuff all over the floor just now," said Hilde with a smile.
Duo scratched his head. She sounded amused, but he knew her well enough now to know that she'd be annoyed underneath. "Sorry about that."
"Don't worry. It's not as if we're expecting company."
The chair in the corner of the room creaked as Duo slumped down into it. The cushions were thick and soft – worn in over the years – and he stretched his arms out on the armrests. "Yeah, I know. For once, it'd be nice to see people, though."
Hilde leant against the doorframe. "We do."
"We see people in the street. We see your friends. No-one from…"
"Back then, you mean? The other pilots?"
Duo sighed. "I know, it's stupid. Things are better off with us all split up. It's just that… well, I liked them."
"You could give them a call," Hilde chuckled. "Even if you don't ever seem to see it, we do have a phone."
"What's the point? Wufei's busy with the Preventers. Quatre's busy with his company. Trowa's all over the place with that circus. And nobody knows what happened to Heero."
"Yeah, but just to talk to them. Keep in touch."
Duo shook his head. "Too much nostalgia. We all lost too much to start talking about back then."
"So don't. Talk about something else."
"What else do we have in common? I run a scrap heap, and Quatre's the richest guy in space. And don't get me started on Wufei and Trowa."
"Then what are you so eager to see them for?"
"I don't know… It just seems like we should be paying more attention to what happened back in the wars, and they're my only connection to it. Here, it feels like I'm a completely different person."
"It's been six years since the Barton Foundation was defeated, Duo. Most people want to forget the wars and the deaths."
"Maybe," Duo sighed. "I guess I'm just not most people."
They were both quiet for a second, until Hilde said brightly, "Speaking of people; I saw another one of them today."
Duo frowned. "That tattoo again?"
"Yeah; some businessman out by the park. It was on his shoulder."
Duo gave her a sly look. "Then how did you see it?"
"Oh shut up Duo Maxwell," she laughed. "He sat down and his suit collar rode up." She became more serious. "It just looks weird, though. Just that one design, and in blue ink."
Duo shrugged. "It's only a tattoo. Seems to be getting real popular, though."
"Stephen from work says it symbolises hope."
"And does Stephen from work have one of these tattoos?"
"He does, as a matter of fact. I know it's nothing; all I'm saying is that it looks creepy. I told him so."
Duo leaned forwards. "What did he do?"
"He just laughed. Said that was what lost of people said."
"Doesn't surprise me. He'll regret it in a couple of months when the fashion's worn off, though." He knew Stephen, vaguely. Short and thin, but not weedy, and with hair almost as long as his own. Always had to keep up with the latest trend.
She pushed herself off from the wall. "Anyway. It's past six already. You want some food?"
"Well, if you're offering…" he grinned.
She answered his grin with one of her own, and turned to enter the kitchen. "Just get your stuff off the floor."
Duo heaved himself up out of the chair, and set about gathering his things. Idly, he found his thoughts wandering back to Wufei, and the Preventers. He usually tried to keep on top of the news reports on them, but the near-incessant riots and terrorism made it difficult, to say the least.
Just yesterday, he'd seen the news that the President of one of the L5 Colonies had been killed. Assassinated by an anonymous gunman from within a crowd. The assassination had spawned another mob, and it got bad enough that the Preventers had to get involved. Of course, the reporter had been quick to assure everyone that order had quickly been restored, and the Colony was well on its way to electing a new President, but Duo knew just how accurate those news broadcasts were.
There would be rioting for weeks on that Colony. Even six years after the disarmament, there was no shortage of dissidents to fuel the fires, and this incident was just the latest in a long list. It never came to outright fighting, but there seemed no end to the amount of small fires the Preventers had to keep dousing.
For all he knew, he reflected bitterly as he tucked his things into a cupboard, Wufei could be dead, and Sally Po with him. There had been firearms in the riots – he had caught their telltale bark in the report, even though the reporter had done her best to cover them and pretend they weren't there.
"Come and sit down, why don't you."
Hilde's voice jarred him from his thoughts, and he shook his head as he went into the kitchen. There was nothing he could do, in any case.
Hilde was busy at the cooker, and she looked over her shoulder at him as he entered. "Relena's on TV."
He took a seat at the small table. Already? "About the L5 thing?"
"I think so. Channel six."
He flicked the TV on, and turned it to six. Relena's face appeared onscreen. She looked visibly older than when he had last seen her; the worry-lines that had appeared on her brow when she was tense were a permanent feature now, and her eyes looked… weary.
Citizens of the Earth Sphere, she was saying, the events that have taken place upon V50263 are another example of the divisive and ignorant elements that are eating away at our society, trying to drive us apart and away from the path of peace.
Duo was reminded of Treize Khushrenada, seven years dead now. He had been convinced that, for good or ill, war was the natural state of mankind. Pacifism, he had maintained, was only an ideal, not a practicality. Duo wondered what Relena would make of that, especially now, after the more-or-less constant troubles that plagued her peace.
But we are stronger than that, Relena continued from behind her nest of microphones. We are united behind the banner of peace, and that lets us withstand any amount of terrorism and scare tactics. We are the bulwark against which this wave of disturbances with break.
Nice words, but words could only do so much. That, Duo had learned during the wars. Words were for the aftermath. That was why the Preventers had nearly ten thousand members; enough to maintain an armed presence in nearly every main population centre in the Earth Sphere. That was why they were the one organisation which had been exempt from the disarmament.
As we speak, the Preventers are working with local authorities to root out and detain those responsible for yesterday's events, and I urge you all to not let this force a wedge between us. Working together, we can stop these threats before they begin, but apart, we would be helpless and isolated.
He switched the TV off. It was going to be the same as every other time. Something would happen, the Preventers would find those responsible for it and lock them up in rehab, and then Relena would make her appearance and calm everyone down. She got the most airtime of any politician, both because of her job as Vice Foreign Minister, and because of what had happened back in the war. She was the public face of the government.
"I was watching that," Hilde protested.
"You were facing the other way."
She shot him a glance. "Very funny. You know what I meant. I was listening."
"Why? It's practically the same speech as last time." It was. Almost word-for-word. Of course, the circumstances were different enough each time for it not to seem like that, but Duo was enough of a cynic these days to see.
"Oh stop moaning," Hilde said, turning around. She had a pan in one hand and a pair of bowls in the other. "Come get some soup."
He took a bowl, and filled it. "Thanks," he said with a grin. "I'd probably starve without you."
"You'd just get takeaways."
He shrugged. "Same thing. So how was work?"
"Same as always," she said, sitting opposite him. "Stephen – the guy I mentioned earlier – had a load more stuff to get through, so I had to take some of that off him. Again."
"It's nothing," he said. "I just still have a hard time picturing you up to your shoulders in bits of machinery."
She gave him a playful punch on the shoulder. "You'll have to come along one day then, won't you? All you ever do is run that scrapyard you insist on keeping right outside the back garden."
"Hey," he protested, "it's interesting. Keeps me occupied."
She shrugged. "Well, if you put it that way; better to keep you occupied than have you moaning all day."
"I do not moan all day."
"Oh, sorry, sometimes you're asleep."
Janus swore, and ducked down below the window as three black-uniformed Preventers dashed past outside, guns in hand.
It wouldn't be long now before they found him, and he couldn't see any clear way out. He was trapped. He didn't even have a gun.
His tattoo burned at him on his shoulder. He scratched at it, and nearly fell when his radio clicked. He fumbled the radio to his mouth. "Janus here," he whispered.
"Do you want to get out alive?"
What? "Who is this?" He didn't recognise the voice.
"Do you want to get out alive, Janus?" the voice repeated.
"Of course I do," he snapped as loudly as he dared. "Now who the hell ar-"
"Out the window in eleven seconds."
"What? Are you stupid?" The street was crawling with Preventers. If he went out there, he'd die for sure.
"Seven seconds, Janus."
"I am not going out there. Whoever you are, you're crazy."
"Three seconds. Go if you want to live."
"I am not- oh fuck it!" He pushed himself out of the window, flinching at the inevitable shots. That never came. The street was empty, except for the three Preventers, who were standing with their backs to him twenty metres up the street.
"Across the street. Run, and keep low."
What the hell, Janus thought. Might as well play along now. I'm dead anyway. He ran across the street in a crouch, into the narrow alleyway between two buildings opposite him. He made to continue.
"Stop," came the voice from the radio.
He did. "First you tell me to run, now to stop- Just where the hell are you, anyway?"
"Knowledge is power, Janus. The stone beside your left foot. Kick it into the street in six seconds."
Kick a stone? What good would that do? He should be sprinting as fast as he could away from here, not lurking in alleys kicking stones.
Without knowing why he was even following what the voice was telling him, he kicked the stone. It skittered out into the street. Just as a Preventer hurried past.
The black-clad man stopped at the noise, just past the entrance to the alleyway. He slowly came back into view, gun raised.
That's it, Janus thought. I'm dead. That Preventer's going to shoot me and I'm going to die.
"Dive forward. He won't expect you. Take his gun."
Janus dove forward. The breath went out of him as he hit the ground, and the Preventer only had time for a startled grunt before Janus' foot took him in the side of the knee. He felt the kneecap give, then something cracked beneath his boot and the Preventer went down, his mouth open in a silent scream.
Janus winced and got to his feet. He stamped on the Preventer's hands, and snatched his gun away.
"What?" Shoot him? Janus had never killed anyone in his life.
"Shoot him. Push the gun up under his chin and shoot him."
"You've got nine seconds before three more Preventers arrive. Shoot him and run."
Shaking, Janus did as the voice instructed, pushing the gun up into the quivering Preventer's neck. He squeezed his eyes shut, and pulled the trigger.
The shot seemed so loud that every Preventer on the Colony must have heard.
The Preventer went limp. Janus opened his eyes, and immediately fought the overpowering urge to retch. The Preventer no longer had the top of his head.
"Now run," the voice said, as calm as if it were a weather forecast.
"I just killed him," Janus whispered, horrified.
"Two seconds before the Preventers, Janus. Run."
Janus ran. His footfalls sounded like thunder in his ears, a crashing drum after each step down the alleyway. The Preventer was dead. He had killed him. The thought echoed madly around his head. He had killed him.
Stop? He had just shot a Preventer dead, and three more were behind him. And the voice expected his to stop?
"Stop," repeated the voice, and something in its tone made Janus obey. "The drainpipe to your right. Climb it."
He looked over at it. The drainpipe was wide, and was fixed to the wall with wide brackets. He tested the lowest with his foot. Unsteady, but doable. Hand over hand, foot over foot, he hauled himself up the drainpipe, doing his best to ignore the shouts that were getting closer and closer. When he reached the top, looking over the roof of the building, the radio crackled again.
"Onto the roof, then jump the gap behind you."
He pulled himself up just as the three Preventers appeared below him. He could hear their voices arguing. He turned. The gap between the buildings was nearly three metres. He'd never make it.
He stood on the edge, willing himself to jump, but his legs refused to move. He was beyond questioning the voice now; he'd come too far. And if he stayed, he was dead. But part of him resisted. Part of him wanted to just lie down on the roof and wait until they found him.
Gritting his teeth, he stepped back, took three rushed steps towards the edge, and jumped.
He slammed into the top of the opposite building, hitting it at his waist. His top half folded over with a grunt, and he scrabbled at the roof for handholds, scarping his fingers raw before he latched on to a protruding chimney. It was small and plastic, and it creaked beneath his weight.
He heard the Preventers below him stop, then bullets thundered around him. Shards of concrete slashed his face as they were shot from the roof. Shit, he thought, puling himself up with all him strength. He got one leg up over the edge, and levered himself over.
Just as a bullet tore into his side in a storm of burning pain.
He screamed. He screamed and collapsed onto the roof.
He forced his mouth closed, breath coming in ragged, forced gasps. His hands were clamped to his side, pressed over the hot stickiness of the wound.
"Get up, Janus. The bullet missed anything serious."
Agony. It was agony. Molten, searing agony that froze like ice. He couldn't think straight. Moving was beyond him; getting up was out of the question.
"Get up Janus, or you will die. They are calling for backup, then they will scale the building to get you. You have thirty eight seconds to get out of there, or you will die."
His teeth ground together as he forced his body to obey. His leg moved slightly, and a fresh jolt of pain went through him. He groaned. His arm. He had to move his arm. To push himself up. Grimacing, he made himself do it.
"Now go," the voice said over the radio once he was shakily on his feet. "Across the roof, then to the next one. Then right."
He staggered across the roof, feeling adrenaline dull the pain that every movement sent stabbing through him. Across the roof. The next gap was small; barely a foot. He stepped over it. Then left. Another small gap.
"Down through the skylight."
Skylight? There it was: maybe ten metres away. The glass had been removed, and a ladder propped against it. By the time he reached it, he could hear the Preventers again.
He went down. The rungs of the ladder gave slightly beneath his feet, but they didn't break. Yet. Below the skylight was a dark room. It looked to be disused; dust covered every surface, and no piece of furniture was unbroken. There was one door to his left, faded paint peeling off it.
"Through the door. You will find a hole in the floor to your right. Jump down."
He pushed the door open. The hole the voice had told him about was there, a splintered gap in the bare floorboards. The blackness was absolute down the hole.
"Jump down?" he croaked into the radio.