Author Note: Whew! I can't believe how long it took me to get through Meaning of War, and that a battle chapter! I guess I should shout out to all you guys who have been lighting up the forums of late... I can't pinpoint exactly what it was about the conversations that kicked me into gear, but it was definitely because of them. Thanks for giving me your concerns, and making sure I stay aware of the things that you think need fixing or special attention... I think TGA is too big for even me, the creator, to keep perfect track of all its subtleties alone. As a quick note on jargon, brought up by Wraith in his review of last chapter, when Murrue says "keep altitude at angels 15", that's not a typo. The Air Force uses the term "angels" to denote a certain predetermined altitude, which can change on a daily basis, so that squadrons can communicate positional data to each other on open comms without fear of being overheard and plotted by the enemy. So if angels for the Endymion was set at 1000 on that day, angels 15 would be 15000 feet altitude. But the next day angels might be 250, so Murrue would have said stay at angels 60 instead, for the same altitude.

Oh, and I created another forum. Its an RP forum specifically for fans of TGA, with a lot more structure that most RP forum's I've seen. But it's the closest you'll probably be able to come to playing in my world, in game terms. It's called World of Gundam Battle: Golden Age Warfare, and it's in the general forums section, cause they won't let one guy have two forums in the same genre, apparently (annoying!). Here's a link to it, just take out the spaces: forum/World_of_Gundam_Battle_Golden_Age_Warfare /108641/

Be warned though... it can suck up your life and attention. Thats what I've been doing these past months. The sideshow has turned into a main stage attraction somehow. Talk about addicting! Over 20 players, 4 GM's, and 25,000 posts, making it the largest RP forum in Gundam Seed, and second largest Forum in Seed overall! In 4 months! Sheesh, I shoulda done that earlier...

xxxx

Space, Lunar Orbit, Second Earth 4, FEAR Headquarters, Mobile Suit Advancement Branch Testing Area, April 30th, 1:03 PM

"What the hell am I doing wrong?" Lain muttered angrily, as his eyes roved over the latest series of results from the monitoring systems that recorded the simulated test runs he'd been attempting dozens of times a day for almost a week now. It had taken him two weeks to recover from the Meisterization surgeries that were required for him to even get this far into the interface with the BALOR, which already put him a week behind both Stella and Ashino, simply because the Super-soldiers either needed less modification than he, or because they recovered much faster from the surgeries they did need. Stella had been the first one through the surgeries, with Lain standing by with a gun in hand, ready to shoot that old prick Roanoke through the back of the head if he did anything less than fufill the promise he'd made to restore Stella's control over her body to her.

He'd stood vigil over her throughout the whole, 12 hour long surgery process, even though it meant seeing bits and pieces of Stella even Lain had never wanted to see. Even though he'd been briefed on each step of the surgical procedure before they started, he just hadn't connected the words with the true scope of the process. As Mechael had commented upon seeing Lain after his own surgeries, "Hey look, its a Mini-Me!" Well, it wasn't quite the same degree of cyborgization as that, but when he'd seen Roanoke cut open the back of Stella's skull and literally start taking sections of her brain out and replacing them with synthetic replacement parts, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to faint or vomit or both! They weren't sections of the brain that dealt with memories or personality, or so Roanoke assured him, but Lain had been on a knife edge until Stella actually awoke, and remembered him, and didn't seem changed by the surgical process.

He still didn't trust Roanoke one hair more than he had to, but Lain could admit, grudgingly, that the FEAR doctor had indeed delivered upon his promise to get Stella back on her feet and moving around normally. Now if only the bastard had done it because he cared about Stella like she cared about him, Lain might actually feel like showing some gratitude to the old fuck! Instead, now Stella might be even more tightly enslaved to the merciless machinations of the corrupt USN leadership than she'd ever been before... and he had only himself to blame for that. But at least this time he was going to be with her all the way, so no one would ever be able to take advantage of her again without getting past Lain Debora first!

Well, assuming he could actually make some damned progress in the simulators, that is! He was still stuck right at the minimal proficiency mark, pretty much across the whole spectrum of synchronization rates and aptitude results, a solid 70 percent overall synchronization and aptitude grade. 68 percent was the minimum cutoff point for a fully adapted Meister. Freaking unaugmented humans could manage around 45 percent! Ashino had reached the theoretical maximum grade of 98 percent on his third simulation attempt, and Stella was hovering at the high end of good at around 89 percent for the last several dozen test runs. Both of them were soon going to start limited live motion tests with their BALORs, and Lain was still stuck in the back of the class struggling to take the training wheels off in the simulators! And he couldn't, for the life of him, figure out what he was doing wrong.

Yes, Stella and Ashino both tested higher than him in baseline reflexes, but after Meisterization, he should have been caught up to Stella, at least, and he'd always had more flair in the pilot's seat than she or the other Extendeds did. Their technical skill might be higher than his, but he had the gut instinct and nerve to take daring risks that they never did. He hadn't become Orb's top non-Gundam Ace during the Second Valentine War just because of his admittedly charming appearance! And in terms of actual battlefield experience, he had more than Stella did, precisely because of him being on active duty during the Second Valentine War. But regardless, every time he could feel himself lagging, his movements a little slurred, like he was drunk or concussed. He'd blamed the connection interface at first, but Ashino had run a test with Tarrasque, Lain's BALOR, and breached the 85th percentile no problem, so it wasn't the BALOR at fault.

That meant, as much as he hated to admit it, that the problem had to lie within Lain himself. Of course, even trudging in at the 70th percentile, the performance of the Tarrasque was simply breathtaking. His opponent in most simulator battles was data taken from the Freedom after the battle of Jachin Due. Even though that battle and Gundam were over a decade old, even the best Solar Knight Paladins, piloting Excaliburs, could only beat the simulation about 2 times in 10, and usually more out of luck than skill or tactics. Lain and Tarrasque, though punch drunk and slurred, had never lost to that simulation. He'd never even taken a HIT from the Freedom in that simulation! But as amazing as that was, Roanoke and Magnus assured him that the true potential of a BALOR was head and shoulders greater than anything he'd even come close to achieving so far.

And seeing what Stella in Tiamat and Ashino in Bahamut were doing in their own simulations, Lain didn't doubt the scientists words. But he was damned if he could figure out why he was the only one with a dunce cap on his head. He didn't want to think about it, but was being an unaugmented human really that much of a handicap to the Meisterization process? Was he really just all talk after all, putting words where his body could not follow up? It was a sad truth, but at the moment, both Stella and Ashino were better pilots for the Tarrasque than he was, and they were already specialized in synchronizing with the other two BALORs. At this rate, he'd never be declared fit for deployment, and he'd be seperated from Stella again, through simple wartime expediency! Plus it would just tickle Roanoke pink to see Lain fail after his bold talk when he'd volunteered for the BALOR program.

Lain sighed, turning it into a moan of frustration as he ran his hands through his dark hair, still flinching slightly as his fingertips encountered the metallic plugs hidden in his scalp that allowed for the connections between his mind and that of his BALOR. His abdomen felt tight and overly firm, thanks to all the extra organs and augmentics which had been packed into his body cavity... pretty much except for his heart, he didn't have much left in the way of his original biological organs anymore. The bio-plastic material was supposed to mimic the density of human flesh perfectly, but somehow it still felt to Lain like his organs had all gotten lumpier and harder under his skin. His lungs had been reduced in size, even as their capacity for oxygenating his bloodstream had increased, to make room for adrenal shunts and other things he didn't really understand, which would help attune his body chemistry to that of the BALOR, to help increase the degree of synchronization between them by making the BALOR less likely to reject his body as a foreign infestation. Something which could kill him, or fry his brain, if it happened violently enough.

He looked up at his bio-mechanical mount towering over him in its restraint and nourishment bay, standing at his... Tarrasque was male, though lacked genitalia of any discernable sort Lain had yet found... giant, three clawed reptilian feet. The name of the cyborg creation was Tarrasque, pronounced Tarr-Ask, after an immortal mythical beast of legend said to slumber at the heart of the world, emerging once every great while to wreak havoc across the land before returning to slumber. Tarrasque was huge, 26 meters tall and just shy of three hundred tons, which was a hell of a lot considering how flesh was not nearly so dense as metal, even bio-engineered flesh. He was sired from a raptor genus... and that was the dinosaur sort of raptor, not the bird... with powerful, thickly muscled legs and long, strong forearms terminating in claws that were as much fingers as talons. The two tails that extended from the same spine were obviously not something that would be found in nature, as were the scorpionlike stingers at their tips, dripping with molecular acid that could melt tempered armor plate like spun sugar.

Tarrasque's head was large, with a long, toothy jaw and a big cranium. There was lots of brain in there, even after the scientists had drilled out the parts that corresponded to conscious awareness and non-instinctive memory. Crests of spiky growths ran down the top of Tarrasque's head and spine, two long flaps in his back hiding where unfolding cyborganic wings and thruster systems were stored, allowing for deployable flight capabilities in atmosphere. The heart of the great beast had been cored out and replaced with a fusion pulse reactor, which fed power to a widely distributed system of cardiac pumps that pumped the highly toxic, even acidic biomechanical sludge that served the BALOR as blood around its body. Well over half of these "hearts" could be destroyed by battle damage before the BALOR's cardiovascular system began to be strained. There were other redundant organ systems as well, and layer upon layer of subdermal armor and nano-repair systems to patch any holes the "Gundam" did suffer.

However the primary defense of Tarrasque was the glittering patches of crystalline scales that covered most of his slick, beam reflective epidermis... over 85 percent of the total surface area, to be exact. Like black ice on a roadway, these scales were hard to see unless you caught them at the right angle or while Tarrasque was in motion, but each of them was made from a naturally occuring Quantum Crystalline accumulation secreted by Tarrasque's pores, making the scales, though barely a quarter inch thick, strong enough to deflect direct Mobile Suit weapon strikes as if they were nothing! The secretions weren't quite as strong as true Quantum Crystal, but it was close. Even the sharpest of blades could not penetrate those QC scales, and the secretions covered Tarrasque's own claws, horns and tail spikes as well, turning them into fearsomely powerful melee weapons. Long, bony tubes growing parallel to Tarrasque's forearms could use muscular contraction to hurl globs of the same molecular acid in the tail stingers at short ranges, a weapon against which few machines had practical defenses, and other muscular contractions could hurl acid envenomed spikes from the growths on Tarrasque's shoulders, again a short ranged tactic.

But the true power of Tarrasque lay in his legs, and the thruster systems built into them and his back as well. Designed for melee combat, Tarrasque was the fastest and most agile of all the BALORs, at least when on the ground or near ground, where his legs could be put to use. He could dogfight aerially, and at a high level, but nothing like what he could do on the ground. Of course Lain hadn't yet managed to actually see his BALOR reach his theoretical limits, but even at 70 percent he could break the sound barrier while running on the ground! Tarrasque was definitely the sweetest piece of gear that Lain had ever had the joy of piloting, and it almost made him weep to know that he still hadn't unlocked any but the lowest levels of the BALOR's abilities. The Newtype powers didn't even wake up until you got to 80 percent synchronization grade, part of a safety feature built into the second generation BALORs.

"Blasted thing, what's wrong? Am I not good enough for you or something?" Lain asked the inert cyborg-thing, drawing back his foot to kick petulantly at the QC encrusted toenail of the nearest foot.

"It's a poor pilot who blames his machine. And a poorer Meister who takes out his frustrations on the very entity he most needs to bond with." A familiar yet entirely unexpected voice from nearby made Lain jump, more like hop on one foot, as he jerked around.

"HOLY SHIT, MARKOV!" Lain screeched, finding the BCPU-Meister standing only a foot or two behind him. "Would you stop sneaking up on me? If my kidneys still worked like they ought to, I'd have pissed my damn pants just now!"

"Situational awareness. Maintain it." Ashino replied without sympathy. "You're a Meister now, you have to hold yourself to higher standards than a normal person would."

"What the hell is normal anyway?" Lain groused, shaking his head. He looked aside at one of the few adult men who was actually shorter than him, though considerably bulkier in muscle mass. "What's your secret, Markov? How do you make it work? What are you doing that I'm not?" He asked frankly, at the end of his rope. "I've tried everything I can think of, but no matter how hard I practice, or how many simulations I run, I don't improve at all!"

"Simply?" Ashino replied with an arched eyebrow. "It's because you're not a Supersoldier."

Lain frowned, feeling like he wanted to cry out of sheer helplessness. So that was it after all. He'd been deluding himself all along. Normal humans just weren't cut out for performance at this level, no matter how extensively they were upgraded by cybernetics. He could doubt Roanoke or Magnus if they'd been the ones to say it, because he knew they had it out for him from the start. But coming from Ashino? How could he argue with that? There was no greater living expert on Supersoldiers alive than the BCPU 4, since he'd been one for longer than any others still alive. "It's not fucking fair." Lain said despondently. "If 'd had the choice, I'd have been a Supersoldier, so Stella wouldn't have to be..."

"I think you misunderstood me." Ashino said, with a sigh and a troubled look on his face. He put one beefy hand on Lain's shoulder, and turned the Orb pilot to look at him. "It's got nothing to do with physical capabilities or skills." Ashino explained bluntly. "Piloting a BALOR is not like operating a machine, on any level. It's not something you can "master" like you would any other Mobile Suit or Gundam. You can't think of yourself as a pilot, instead, you must consider yourself a vital organ, a piece of a greater whole, which works together with all the other organs in harmony. It is as the doctors say... we must become the intelligence that animates the flesh, the conscious that rides herd over the subconscious. You pilot Tarrasque as well as anyone, Lain. But you have never managed to actually animate his flesh."

"Mystical mumbo-jumbo, as far as I can tell." Lain retorted morosely. "I don't get shit like that. I believe in what I see and feel in front of me."

"That's not true at all, and you shouldn't let your frustration speak for you." Ashino reprimanded him. "A man without faith in intangibles and inexplicables as you claim to be could never have become Stella's savior as you have. You're an Orbite, through and through, and there is no people more faithful than those of Orb, in these times. Think of Queen Zala-Attha... you believe in her and her methods, even if you don't understand them, right?"

"The Queen's a little easier on the eyes than this buggeOW!" Lain remarked, before flinching from a not at all playful slap to the side of his head from Ashino. "What the fuck?"

"That's what I'm wondering." Ashino said flatly. "I never thought you were this oblivious before. How can you get it so right with Stella, and even me, to an extent, and so wrong with Tarrasque? From where does your disdain and disrespect for the BALOR come from? Why do you persist in seeing it as a mere machine, an inanimate object? Something to be controlled, to be mastered and bent to your will whenever you see fit? How blunt do I have to be? What IS Stella, Lain? For that matter, what am I?"

"You're Supersoldiers." Lain could see that Ashino was really trying to get at something here, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out what. "An Extended and a BCPU."

"And my designation stands for...?"

"Biological Compute... oh." Lain suddenly felt like the hugest dumbass in the world.

"Finally. I was worried I'd need to make serious apologies to Stella for beating you senseless. Yes, I'm a Biological Computer Processing Unit. A living weapon. The same as Stella, though to a different degree. The same as a BALOR. We are classified as military equipment, Lain. But we ARE people... and you're one of the few alive who helped US learn that, not the other way around. How can you, who loves and is loved by a Aupersoldier, reconcile treating a BALOR, though it is not human, as just a piece of equipment to be used and replaced at will? These are intelligent creatures, Lain, who have been bred from birth and subject to horrible experiments, before having their brains violated and their memories and personalities destroyed! They are the most victimized of ALL super-beings! And you would heap scorn and disrespect upon them, because of your own inability to understand that they have a soul as well, that they are a living, feeling being in their own right?" Ashino actually seemed a bit choked up, though with sadness or rage, Lain couldn't tell.

"I'll repeat it. Your problem is that you're NOT a Supersoldier. We were raised, I to a greater extent than Stella, to see ourselves as just part of a greater machine. The Bane and I, two parts of the same being, designed together, to be together, to work together, to fight together! When I pilot a Gundam, Lain, it is not like driving a car or sailing a boat. It is what I would describe as a deeply spiritual experience for me. It is what I was raised to do. It is my purpose, in the most fundamental sense. Even when I am with Tamara, in the most intimate meaning, I do not feel as complete a person as I do when I am with my Gundam on the battlefield! In a very real sense, Supersoldiers like me are married to our Gundams, and it is a mutually loving relationship. If you cannot accept Tarrasque as an equal partner, as a being with feelings of his own... if you cannot find it in yourself to LOVE Tarrasque as you love Stella, in the purest, most spiritual meaning of love, then you will NEVER be able to fight to his full potential. Do you understand what I'm saying now?" Ashino said quietly, and Lain had never seen him as passionate as he did then.

"You're not a Supersoldier, Lain. And you never will be one either. But you still proved that you can look beyond the Supersoldier to the human being inside, and love them despite anything else. A normal human could never become a Meister of any success, that is true. But you're not a normal human, Lain, in the most important way... your heart, and its ability to accept those who are damaged and incomplete as humans. So you do have a chance... if you'll but open that heart as you did once before. Its hard for me to explain, and probably for Stella too. For us, its obvious. As natural as breathing. To not love one's Gundam or Mobile Suit as a significant spiritual being, our other half... we can't even comprehend that. It would be like you feeling that your own hands were just replacable equipment."

"I see I've got some serious apologizing to do, huh?" Lain said, with a sickly grin as he looked back up at the comatose BALOR once more.

"Yes, apologies would be a good place to start." Ashino agreed, without even a hint that he was joking, as Lain half had been. "I didn't say it was like love just to get through your thick normie skull, Lain. Approach Tarrasque as if he is a girl you are trying to woo. Learn to listen to him, to find out how he feels about you, before you put too much effort into thinking about how you feel about him. You wouldn't kiss Stella without her tactit consent, right? Don't try to go anywhere with Tarrasque in a simulation until you two have gotten mutual consent worked out between you. In a certain manner of speaking, to merely pilot a BALOR without receiving their consent could be likened to sexual assault. And that's no joking matter."

"Uhm... you don't think... he resents me, do you?" Lain still felt weird to talk about the BALOR like that, but it was slowly sinking in that this might well be his last chance at making this Meister thing work that Ashino was offering him in this roundabout way.

"Bahamut does not believe he does." Ashino answered with a half shrug. "I've explained that you're still a little stupid in the ways of Supersoldiers, and I'm sure Stella and Tiamat have been counselling patience as well."

"Wait, wait wait a minute here... the BALORs can talk to each other? But they're lobotomized! What about that mental contamination thing the doctors were so fired up about, that made the first generation go berserk? But you make it sound like you and Bahamut, or Stella and Tiamat, are interchangable terms! Don't you think that's a little weird? A little troubling? Aren't you worried about losing control of yourself?"

"No moreso than I worry about Tamara taking control of my mind with her sexual prowess in bed." Ashino replied blandly, and Lain was almost sure that the BCPU was joking then, for once. "For someone who hates Roanoke as much as you do, and for as good reasons as you do, you put a surprisingly amount of faith in his instructions and knowledge of the BALORs. Haven't you and the Extended already proved just how little he understands his own Supersoldiers, those whom he dedicated his entire life to creating? Why should his grasp of the BALORs, a project he isn't even soley in control of, be so much more sure? The first generation Meisters were taught to try and control their BALORs, keeping themselves fully and distinctly seperate from their alter-egos. Like I said, doing that is like raping them. They don't like it. Eventually they're going to end up snapping, and raping you back. And they're MUCH bigger and stronger than you are. And when both sides of the relationship are founded upon forcible control and pain, naturally you get results like berserker frenzies and mental contamination!"

"Ever think you might want to try explaining that to the doctors in charge?" Lain asked. "I mean, if they're going about the process all wrong, then for the sake of future Meisters and BALORs, shouldn't we..."

"There will be no more BALORs or Meisters." Ashino cut him off coldly. "The utter nobility of these creatures cannot be expressed in words, Mr. Debora. That they should live the lives they do, and still be capable of loving when offered love in turn... it brings a fire to my heart to think of it. Though I love Bahamut, I meld with him only because there is no other choice. The BALORs never did anything wrong save but to exist and excel at the tasks the scientists set before them. Yet they had their minds... their very memories and personalities... irrecoverably stolen from them by the lobotomization process. That was their reward for doing what they were built to do! Blinded. Deafened. Paralyzed. Unable to touch, taste, smell or experience the outside world in any way. Unable to remember your name or anything about yourself. Consigned to a living hell of oblivion and sensory deprivation. All for succeeding. Can you IMAGINE the sense of betrayal they must feel? And yet they accept our love, and meld with us, and seek to protect us and those we care for, when in their place I would only seek to destroy those who had betrayed me so!"

There were real tears in Ashino's eyes as he continued. "I will NOT allow any other beings to suffer as Bahamut, Tiamat and Tarrasque have suffered, anymoreso than I would allow someone to start creating new BCPU's! I will atomize this place and all who know of it before allowing that crime to be committed again, and that includes you and Stella, Mr. Debora, should you try to stop me. I warn you now... if you do not understand what I mean, and how serious I am about it... one day, you and I will be enemies once more. And once this place, and all knowledge pertaining to the creation of BALORs and Meisters is destroyed irrecoverably, then I will finally be able to keep the first promise I ever swore to Bahamut... that I would end his pain and send him to a better place."

Ashino paused for a moment, before going on in a softer tone. "I am a damaged person, Mr. Debora. I will never be a complete human... that is what probably would have doomed my relationship with Jean, sooner or later, even without Durandel's interference. I love Jean from the bottom of my heart, but she could never truly see me for what I am. A BCPU. She kept trying to rehabilitate me, as if I was someone who'd merely learned differently how to be human than she did. She taught me many things, and gave me much of myself. But in the end, I do not believe she would have been able to accept that I am, and always will be, a BCPU. Tamara can, and does, and that is why she is my partner, and not poor, abused Jean, who has twice now been caught between my enemies and me and made to suffer for it!" Ashino's hand clenched to the point where he probably could have powdered stone in his palm.

"But as damaged as I am, Mr. Debora..." Ashino slowly relaxed his hand. "I am still whole, of mind, and body, and probably sanity. I possess both the ability and opportunity to change myself, to grow and choose my own path in life. Bahamut and the other BALORs... they are broken, Mr. Debora. They are trapped within themselves, and can only express themselves through a Meister willing to love them. They cannot grow, or change their path in life, without breaking the only person who has ever shown them love and care. They have no future, save that of endless suffering and sacrifice. And we don't possess the technology to heal them, even if we fully regrew their brains, the memories and conscious personalities would never return. Every moment of their existence is torture, even if there is no physical pain... and there is plenty of that, Mr. Debora. And I know... do I ever know... how that can only ever end. Have I ever told you about my family, Lain?"

"I take it you don't mean your real parents." Lain said quietly. He wasn't sure why Ashino was saying all this to him... he'd bought into the whole philosophy as soon as he realized that Tarrasque and Stella were the exact same, in terms of life situation... but he wasn't going to argue if the BCPU needed an outlet. He almost wished Stella could be as open about her own past, such as it was. But perhaps that time would come, if he was there for her enough.

"Yes, I speak of my adoptive family, my brothers and sisters of the BCPU program." Ashino nodded grimly. "They're truly the only family I ever knew, or can remember knowing at least. And what a dysfunctional family we were. There was no love lost between us for the most part... we were all in competition with each other for those precious places in Father's good graces. Only a select few could excel, and earn Father's acknowledgement and love. Everyone else was merely fodder for the ambition of those lucky few. I was not one of the lucky few. As far as BCPU's go, my abilities were perfectly mediocre. I excelled at nothing, but neither did I lack at anything. The only exceptional thing about me was that I was friends with Shani Andras, one of the highest performing BCPU's, and the first to reach the hallowed 4th augmentation level and survive. And even friends is perhaps too strong a word... we trusted each other not to stab each other in the back at first opportunity, let it be put that way. That was friendship, as BCPU's understood it."

"But as the Blue Cosmos influence grew more and more pronounced within the program, the demand changed from Supersoldiers, who could fight Coordinators on equal terms in Mobile Suits, to Superkillers, who were weapons of terror and mass destruction, the personal kill-squad of Blue Cosmos's leadership. People were rushed through the augmentation levels, resulting in higher failure rates and much greater turnover amongst the hopefuls. Me, a mediocre performer, suddenly became a star, simply because of my surviving the upgrades to level 4. And those who were even more flawed than I suddenly found their star to be in ascension. Craydon Thresher and Amy Sihov, for instance. BCPU 3's at the time I made 4, they were on the short list for "retirement" and "scrapping" simply because of their unresolvable sociopathic tendencies. They could not be taught to follow orders in a combat situation without the use of fear and other coercive measures. They were the reason BCPU's were fitted with internal explosive devices around our hearts, as a measure of last resort to control us."

"But as the demand for soldiers lessened, and the need for killers grew, their sociopathic tendencies were re-evaluated in a positive light. They were superlative killers, and would kill anyone who came near them if they could manage it. Only the Doc himself... Father... could safely interact with them without restraints. I think they probably would have killed each other if they hadn't realized that without someone to watch the others back, the rest of us would have mobbed and murdered them in their sleep long since. As we grew older, that relationship evolved into them sleeping together, an indulgence Father allowed as long as their test scores remained high... much as Stella's Father allowed the Extended to mingle. Once they'd survived the experimental 5th level surgeries, right around the time the Alliance got the N-Jammer Cancelers, they were set, waiting only for their Gundams to be built to be declared fit for active deployment."

"It was at this point that a new variable entered the equation. If I'd only known then what I know now, I like to think I could have saved untold amounts of people so much suffering and horror. His name was Frost. Zacharis Quentin Frost." Ashino shivered and his lips curled, as if the mere name put a bad taste in his mouth. "Of all BCPU, he was the most flawed, his body constantly wracked with illness, weakness and injury. He was picked on by everyone, because he was weak, and because we were jealous that he had been hand selected for the program by Father personally... something that no other could claim. He hated all of us, and we all hated him, but because the Doc apparently considered him a hobby project, we left him alive. We would all regret it later."

"Perhaps it was his very flawed body that was the secret to his success. With each new surgery, more and more of his flawed body was replaced with the augmentations of the BCPU... and they worked better for him than they did for others. Perhaps his body was so used to functioning with subpar and malfunctioning equipment, so that when that equipment was replaced with experimental and untested augmentations that would kill anyone else through bodily rejection imbalances, his body didn't even really notice a difference until it slowly acclimatized to the implants. Either that or he was just a demon from the beginning, and possessed of a secret well of unnatural vitality that allowed to him to live through pain and torment that killed dozens of ostensibly stronger BCPU's. I'm still not sure which makes more sense to me."

"He breezed from level 2, the lowest of the low, to level 5, the apex of our existence at the time, in a matter of months. He shattered the Cray-Amy dynamic, the ruling king and queen of our little society, within five minutes of recovering from the level 5 surgeries. Cray was in a near coma for a week afterwards, proof that not all level 5's were created equal after all, and Amy... Amy never recovered from Frost forcing himself upon her, I don't think. It may have been the first true time in her life that she was victimized by someone stronger than her. Other than her inclusion in the program at all, of course. She was still as sociopathic as ever, but she became cowed, even sycophantic, whenever Frost was around. Two years, spent back to back with Cray, and after that day in the martial arts gym when Frost nearly killed Cray and pinned her down in front of us all, they never slept together again. They barely even talked, except when it was the three of them together. It's not like they were in love, or ever had been... we didn't know what that was, except for in our adoration of Father. But still, they had something, and Frost shattered it beyond repair just to prove he could."

"I think that was when I first started to fear my brother, rather than just hate him. And he scented that fear almost immediately. I became his new playtoy, and he played rough. I nearly died at his hands more times than I can remember. I couldn't fight him... by then, I was the best of the 4's, but even the best 4 couldn't stand up to a 5 for more than a few minutes in a serious fight. And even while a 5, Frost somehow managed to surpass the usual limitations. Other 5's were created, but they all ended up dying during their first few nights amongst their new brothers and sister. Training accidents. Roughhousing gone bad. No one could out and out point and say that Frost was murdering them, but we all knew the score, even if the scientists wouldn't admit it. He made the message loud and clear... survive to be a 5, and you signed your own death warrant. He must have been afraid someone else would come out even more powerful than he had. Or was worried Cray and Amy might find their spines with a few extra brothers and sisters to back them up."

Ashino's eyes turned hollow and cold as he went on. "Then came the level 6 surgeries. Nothing anywhere close to as radical as that had ever been attempted before. Even the Doc was against trying it, and he'd come up with the process! Cervantes didn't give him a choice. Frost was already a monster as a 5. Surviving to reach 6 pushed him beyond the brink of human comprehension. It was a fluke, an aberration... it never should have worked, but it did. Nobody knew what to expect. Nobody knew what sort of evil had been unleashed. And he was evil. Pure evil. Even the Doc couldn't control him reliably, and to us, that was like saying God was unable to control one of his own creations. I don't need to explain to you what he's like. You've met him. You might even think you can imagine what it was like to live with him around, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Or you can save your sanity and not think about it."

"Here's something you might not know about Frost though." Ashino said with a bitter frown. "The level 6 surgery had a side effect. Constant, unending pain, like being slowly flayed alive across every inch of your skin simultaneously. Frost spent every moment, awake or asleep, being tortured like a damned soul in hell, by his own body. It wasn't long before he could only tell if he was awake or asleep by how bad that pain was. If it was tolerable, then he was asleep. Frost didn't so much come to enjoy or tolerate pain as he did fail to realize there was anything to life BUT pain and suffering. And seeing others live without pain and suffering drove him into demonic rages of jealousy and vindictive vengeance. He immersed himself in the causing of terror, death and hatred, until he forgot what other emotions there even were. It was only after encountering Lacus Clyne that he realized there was more to the world than his own suffering. He immediately set out to change that at all costs. And the rest, as they say, is history."

Ashino took a long, deep breath. "Lain, Bahamut and the other BALORs... they are tortured every moment of their lives, not with pain, but with an utter absence of all feeling that might even be worse. Madness or worse is the only fate that awaits them, and the longer they stay alive, the closer they come to tipping over the edge into that abyss. You've seen what Bahamut can do when we get going. Imagine that sort of power at the control of something that lived only to destroy and kill! Imagine that power at the behest of something that saw no sanctity in life of any form! It would be a catastrophe! An apocalypse! Millions would die before he was stopped. If anyone could even stop him at all. And if this happened in space, inside a Second Earth? Death tolls like Blue Monday's would be the least of the damage..."

"We're playing with fire, aren't we?" Lain said with a nervous swallow.

"With breached fusion cores, more like." Ashino confirmed with a grimace. "We need the strength of the BALORs to defeat the Edenites and Frost. But at the same time, if those noble creatures we rely on cannot hang on to their sanity, trapped forever in ultimate darkness and sensory deprivation, due to the very tortures we inflicted on them so that we might make use of them, then they could easily become a threat greater than anything the human race has yet encountered. That's the responsibility we bear as their Meisters, Lain. We are the key to their salvation. And the means by which they might be damned forevermore. That is why we must love them, as partners, as soul-mates even. Because only in the depthless strength of such relationships can we anchor them, and work together with them to save us, not only from our chosen enemies, but the future enemies that we've built ourselves as present allies..."

xxxx

Galileo Lunar Fleet Base, USN Military Headquarters Complex, Strategic Planning Theatre, April 30th, 5:35 PM

"... and that concludes the progress report on the BALORs and other special projects." The papery voice of Dr. Roanoke wound down from his fifteen minute long presentation on the USN's cutting edge military technology development. There were dozens of different projects under development and in prototyping, though few besides the main BALOR project were anywhere close to actual completion or field readiness. There was a lot of potential strength to be found in the efforts of FEAR, even after the programs with the most egregious violations of human rights and moral decency had been sequestered and countermanded, by one of the earliest joint War Council planning meetings, after Orb had been brought fully onto the Council. But unfotunately it was still just that... potential strength. Vey little in the way of solid, usable strength.

"So we're still right back where we started then?" Cagalli spoke up quickly and loudly, her speaking voice always raised a few decibles during these meetings so as to make sure it carried to all ears in the room, seated at the table or standing behind it. She wanted no one to doubt the conviction of her proclamations or to claim they hadn't heard the resolutions she ramrodded into agreement through the Council. It made her sound even more fiercely irritated than she actually was, and she was plenty irritated. Having bought her and his other worst domestic enemies into his war council deliberations, Durandal had progressed to becomming a passive-aggressive impediment to their process, staying frustratingly away from making any real commitments while Cagalli and the others grappled with the beauracatic inertia of the previous Supreme Commander's inept policies.

Just went to show that even when you had the man by the balls, politically speaking, he wasn't apt to give an inch or even appear flustered, annoyingly enough. If it were any other man, it would be an impressive show of self control and political aplomb. Since it was Durandal, it was nothing short of aggravating in the extreme. Cagalli usually ended up chomping down mild sedatives like dime store candy after each meeting, just to help deal with the pounding urge to strangle the Solar President barehanded the very next time they met. He had the sword of Damocles hanging over his head and yet he still had the gall to act like he was in complete control of everything, and was just allowing their participation for his own amusement! It was like he'd somehow won, even though Cagalli had enough political dirt on him now through his connections to the Reclaimer Initiative Death Camps to sink a hundred career politicians!

"I'm sure the good Doctor is working as hard as he can, your Majesty." Durandal cut in smoothly. "We wouldn't want a repeat of Nara-Attha City after all. Wasn't it you who required that we be absolutely sure the next generation BALORs would not go berserk before we deployed them to the field? Which do you want more... BALORs on the field or reliable BALORs?"

"We want both." Waltfeld cut in, knowing that to leave Durandel and Cagalli alone would only degenerate into yet another interminable arguement that would drag on for the entire session. Worse than cats and dogs they were, though obviously not without reason. "We NEED a counter to the Executor's as soon as possible. It took over half our available Gundams to merely drive Kira away from Heaven's Base. If Frost or Kunai had been there, we'd have been dealt a crushing defeat. As things are, Heaven's Base is out of commission on an operational standpoint for at least a month. So far we've just been lucky that the Eddies are as divided as we are, in terms of their high command, and at least they have the excuse that one of their leaders is a frothing mad homicidal maniac..." Waltfeld looked disapprovingly around the table, with Cagalli at least having the grace to look abashed at the unspoken admonishment.

"We stand on the cusp of pushing the war into its terminal stages here, but we can't move forward with any major attacks until we have a counter for their Gundams. End of story. I'm not going to preside over another folly like Victoria. Until those BALORs are up and running, we're stalemated, so I suggest the Doctor redoubles his efforts and those of his team, because we're just waiting on them now. You've made a lot of big promises and shown some exciting data, Dr. Roanoke. Its time to make good on your intent." Waltfeld continued, staring hard at the old prune of a scientist with his single eye, before moving on with his own presentation. "Without our anti-Executor tools, our options are limited. Our main strategic goal remains discovering the precise location of the enemy Capital, Garden City. We know that it resides somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains, probably in what used to be northern India or Nepal before the Reconstruction War. But that's a big area with some very hostile and treacherous terrain, and none of our orbital scans have picked up any sign of major habitation in that sector."

Waltfeld heaved a heavy sigh. "And with technology to pierce the new photo-refraction cloaks of the Eddies still in its utmost infancy, and our nonconventional means of piercing their stealth systems extremely limited, as Commander Joule and his wife cannot be everywhere at once, I don't think we'll ever be able to pinpoint the location of the city without reliable intel from a high level Edenite source. Thus I've made it our main tactical objective to capture an Eddie general rank officer or one of their elite champions, a Praetorian, alive for questioning. The problem with that being most of the time we have no idea where the Eddie military formations are, and especially the Praetorians seem to move around as they see fit, somewhat like the FAITH agents of ZAFT. Planning an ambush for them won't be easy. Yes, Mr. Dicosta?" He acknowledged his former aide, who was standing by Durandel's shoulder, formally, playing up the fact that they did not know each other well in public.

"We've received consistent reports of a Praetorian leading guerilla warfare specialists in the foothills of the southern Himalaya's. If reports are to be believed, it is one of their top four fighters... I believe the term is "Arboreal Praetorian"... one of the ceremonial if not actual leaders of the Praetorian Order. This woman, known as Yggdrasil's Valkyrie, has been a regional thorn in Carpentaria's side for several weeks now, and her activities have prevented us from gaining any solid ground level intel on that sector of the Himalaya's. We have surmised that she's been baiting us, trying to draw a heavy response force into a trap, so we have avoided making any major commitments in that area. But that might still be our best chance of capturing a high level warleader, even if it is a trap." Dicosta reported to them all.

"And the Edenites aren't the only ones who can set traps." Waltfeld smiled thinly. "I've cut orders to begin the construction of a large expeditionary base in southern China, just outside the foothills of the Himalaya's in that region. Once that base is up and running, it will take over primary charge of operations control in the Asian theatre, while Carpentaria serves as our fallback position and primary logistics reserve. The Eddies can't afford to have such a base in their backyard, as it will serve as an ideal stepping off point for the eventual push into the mountains to besiege their capital. And with the majority of the SPF reserve forces either protecting shipping lanes, or running air cover over the re-establishment of Porta Panama now that we've confirmed the area beyond the reach of psychic interference on a grand scale, the base will be vulnerable to an attack with concentrated force."

"When the Eddies show up to trash the base, we're gonna hit them with everything we've currently got. I've got Two Archangel class Mobile Assault Carriers, the Endymion, and 4 Defender Class Destroyers prepped for high speed orbit to surface transition near the area, ostensibly running patrols between Carpentaria and Panama voidspace in case of another theater HQ assault. They'll make it quite hot if the Eddies come looking for trouble. And if they suspect a trap and hold off, then we'll have a brand new base to launch probes of the mountains with, so we win either way."

"And the USNS Monarch, the 5th Incarnate class vessel, is about 30 percent complete at last evaluation." Fleet Admiral Icarus spoke up proudly. "While the keel-laying ceremonies for the USNS Shogun, the 6th in the class, are due to begin in the next few days. By the end of this year we should have at least one more fully operational SPF Theatre Fleet and be a good way started on another beyond that. We're rolling out Myrmidon's at the rate of three per month, and new shipyard facilities are coming online as we speak... I intend to reach a goal of ten Myrmidons per month before the end of the year. With fully trained crews and support vessels as well. The Eddies may have void-war capability now, but there's no way they can match our manufacturing base. With enough ships in our fleets, they won't dare leave the atmosphere or try to attack ou homelands again!"

"Numbers alone won't stop Frost. If anything, the greater your strength grows, the more likely he is to attack." Cagalli warned the smug Admiral. "And as Kira showed with the Monolith over Victoria, the truism that even the mightiest Warship is vulnerable to precision attacks from a Mobile Suit has been comprehensively proven. Just because we CAN smother the enemy with ships and soldiers, does that mean we should? Every Myrmidon has a crew of over ten thousand people, and how many Myrmidons do we stand to lose in a major fleet engagement with the Edenites? I don't know what Namara's been telling you, but Lexi's been telling me our casualties would be catastrophic. And there is no "acceptable loss ratio" when its your own life on the line, Admiral." She glared molten daggers at the pudgy Fleet Admiral, well recalling his inconsiderate words during the battle of Nara-Attha City.

"Her Majesty brings up a good point." Jiro Kurenai, Chief Representative of Orb, spoke up firmly. "Our forces have always outmatched the enemy military force. But you don't put out a fire by smothering it with corpses or drowning it in your own blood. There must be better methods to resolving this conflict than grinding attrition. I was the one, in conjunction with Her Majesty, to first call for war against the Edenites. But I know things now that I did not back then, and I find myself questioning whether war is really the answer to our problems with the Edenites. They HAVE legitimate grievances against the USN and the Durandel Administration. All here know this to be true. I cannot forgive them for what they've done to Orb while lashing out against the USN, but I also cannot, in good conscience, support this war when it only got this bad because of our treating them as subhuman creatures not worthy of life or free will."

"Jiro's right." Cagalli said instantly, though it took effort to do so. "I admit, I'm probably much at fault for how things have become, both in calling for this war, and in the actions that led up to the sneak attack on Orb. It's my fault alone that Kira even got to the point where defecting to the Edenites was a reasonable course of action, much less his only course of action. I've created our own worst enemy through my own lack of faith in my family."

"Maybe you should resign your position and retire then?" Durandel commented, unable to resist prodding the ferocious Queen in an admission of weakness.

"You say that like you think I won't, Gilbert." Cagalli retorted tiredly. "I've never sought or enjoyed power for its own sake, unlike some at this council. I'm sick and tired of this. Of the responsibility. Of sending people to die for what I know is right. Of enduring the criticism and political backstabbing for every choice I make, perhaps especially the most necessary ones. Of being the place where the buck stops, and the face on TV that people point to and say "she's the one who screwed up". I've tried to retire in the past, but each time I do, something worse seems to happen that requires my taking up the reigns of leadership once more. The burden of success just seems to be more expectations and responsibility than ever before. And I'm tired of it, beyond words. But I can't stop until I make things right. For Orb. With the Edenites. And with my Brother."

"So what should we do then?" Icarus half sneered. "Send them a card, apologizing for fighting a war?"

"If I thought it would help, I'd write it and deliver it myself." Cagalli snapped back. "On hands and knees if need be. The Edenites are just like Orb after all. They never sought a conflict, but they couldn't turn from one that was brought to them. There's a lot to admire about them. A lot we have in common. Its the greatest tragedy that we're at odds with them all because of one man's ambition." She stared over at Durandel, sitting exactly opposite her at the table, as far from her physically as it was possible to be. "Why do you hate them so much, Gilbert?" She asked one of the questions she'd been pondering for ages now.

"I don't hate them, Your Majesty." Durandel replied coolly. "Hate is a personal thing, and I don't know any of them personally. I will admit that... oversights and mistakes... did occur, largely without my notice or by underlings creatively interpreting the jurisdiction and authority I had granted them, but as ever, I have only acted with the best interests of the USN in mind."

"How can you sit there and say that when your people were establishing SLAVERY AND EXTERMINATION CAMPS for Edenite civilians and prisoners of war?" Cagalli hissed venomously, hands gripping the table until her knuckles were white from exertion. "I've seen with my own eyes what your goons have been doing to the Edenites. Oversights and mistakes, Gilbert? Don't make me laugh. You can play the careless bumbler if you want, but we're not going to laugh this off as a case of political ineptitude and minions gone bad. If you were prone to those sorts of mistakes in governance, you'd never have become Solar President in the first place. You were talking out both sides of your mouth, Gilbert, and you got caught. Just admit it. Its not like we can impeach you, now of all times, despite how much you deserve it."

"Apportion blame however you see fit, Your Majesty. I stand by my assertation that anything and everything I have done is for the greater good of the USN, and the future of humanity as a whole." Durandel replied with an aloof shrug. "I hardly think you'll find much public support for any assertation that the Edenites are not a danger or a threat to the safety and peace of the USN. We've seen all too recently what sort of havoc they can cause when they put their minds to it, and havoc of that sort is not something we can defend ourselves against, as we do not have their psychic abilities. They are like us, Your Majesty, but they CANNOT be part of us. How long do you think it would take before all positions of power were held by Edenites in any sort of mixed society, given their genetic aptitudes and abilities? Would you consign us all to a system of genetic castes, where Naturals and Coordinators labor as menial underlings to the Edenites simply because they are not equipped with the same genetic gifts as them?"

"As ever, you seem to confuse yourself with average, ordinary people, Gilbert. Few are as ambitious and power driven as you are. Most people don't WANT to be in a position of power over their fellows, or if they do, they don't want the actual responsibility that comes with the office. Fewer still put in the time and effort required to getting enough of their fellows to like and support them so as to be elected to office, and then abuse that power for their own ends, precisely because they know what will happen if the people withdraw their support. You sound like a conspiracy theorist, suspecting some mass Eddie takeover plot or something." Cagalli snorted and shook her head in contempt. "You seem to forget that I've lived with two Eddies as part of my family for years and years. For all genetic purposes, my brother and his family are and always were Edenites. And while they may not be common folks either, they're actually all the more apt, because they had the power to rule just as you're afraid of... and they never took it."

"At the very least, we should send emissaries to the Edenite civil government and try to begin talks about the treatment of civilians within active warzones." Jiro said, trying to get the discussion back on track. "Meet on neutral ground somewhere, since I rather doubt they'll let us come to their capital. This war is too terrible as it is, we cannot let it continue to degenerate into these genocidal tit-for-tat reprisals we've seen recently."

"I would support such a measure." Waltfeld added quickly. "I don't think we'd ever get a cease fire agreement with them, much less broker peace diplomatically... not at this uncertain stage of the game anyway. But I've never willingly waged war on civilians who only wanted to be left alone to live their own lives, and I don't intend to start now. And getting talks started now will make things easier for everyone once we've put the Eddies in an untenable position, militarily speaking. There's no reason this has to even come to an invasion of their capital, if we can but prove to them that they have no chance of resisting us from making the attempt. Once we have Garden City's location, and have subdued Victoria, I will draw up a final draft of a conditional surrender plan to be presented to the Edenites."

"Let us hope that they're as reasonable as you all are." Durandel countered drily. "Though I personally have seen little in the way of reasonableness from any of the Edenite commanders as of yet. One wages a personal war of vendetta against me and the USN because he thinks we murdered his family, as if I would ever do something so foolish. Another is a omnicidal madman who seeks only to perpetuate an eternal conflict throughout humanity. The last is a revenant of bad days gone by, somehow reawoken to plague the world once more. You're telling me you think Sai Argyle, the man behind the Isolation, is a REASONABLE sort?" He shook his head sadly.

"Regardless of who started this war or why, its not something that will be stopped by words or sorrowful lamentations of guilt and responsibility. And nothing you or I can say or do will change that. There is only way to achieve peace now, and thats to utterly destroy their ability to fight us in any way. If there was any other way, you all wouldn't even be here with me now, you'd be taking the other path already. So spare me your righteousness, it helps no one. Do whatever you like to salve your consciences, it won't change what needs be done in the end."

"Maybe it won't." Cagalli agreed, obviously taking Durandel aback a bit. "But I still want to try. The Edenites deserve that much. Kira deserves that much. However belated, however inadequate, they still deserve our apologies. To know that they didn't do anything wrong, and that we know that they didn't do anything wrong either. It can't... it won't... stop us from fighting them. For the sake of Blue Monday, or other reasons, we can't just surrender to them, or stop fighting. But I want them to know we don't WANT to be fighting them, and that as soon as they're willing to call it quits, so will we, and gladly. And then we can all apportion blame together, on both sides. There's more than enough to go around after all."

xxxx

Somewhere Cold, Sometime Soon, Somehow Possible...

His breath foamed in the air as he panted from his most recent exertions, sparkling runnels of bubbles flowing out of his mouth with each exhalation and rising away into the clear, endless, cold sky above. It was an odd sight, one which had greatly troubled him upon first waking up in This Place, but by now there were so many worse things in This Place to occupy his attention that he hardly even noticed anymore. Bubbles or not, he still breathed, the air frosty and harsh on his lips and tongue, making his throat and chest ache and throb constantly, and leaving him constantly tired from the effort of simply inhaling and exhaling. Sometimes it was all he could do to simply lift his head and get up from where he sat against the Rock, knees curled to chest and wrapped round with his arms. Of course, even when he could muster the strength to rise from his position, there was no where to go.

Except for the Rock, This Place was empty, featureless, almost a void, full of silvery light that pulsed dimly at an interval he'd tried to keep track of before it started making his head hurt even worse than it already did. It was somewhere between a heart throb and clock tick. There was ground, fluffy and white, like feathers in a picture book he'd once been shown by Near-Mother, she with hair of red and eyes of steel, back in the Other Place before This Place. Or like clouds, in those half remembered dreams of his very earliest memories, of looking up at blue sky and clouds, in the arms of Real-Mother, with her hair of red and eyes of gold. But as fluffy as the ground looked, it felt cold and slimy and raspy to his bare feet and buttocks whenever he stood or sat upon it. It was like sitting on a giant tongue of some sort.

The Rock, the only feature of note, rose behind him, sprouting from the ground like a giant hair springing from a bald head. It was dark grey and shot through with blackness and shadows in random patterns, like light glinting off a tub of sloshing water, except in reverse. So tall he couldn't see the top of it, and wide enough that he could only walk around a little bit of it before the Chains brought him up short. He called it a Rock, but only because he wasn't sure what else to call it... it seemed "natural", as far as anything in This Place was, and it looked kind of like a rock in texture, but in those few times he'd willingly touched it, the Rock had felt anything but solid. More like a thin rubber sheet, like the ones they'd laid over the operating table he'd spent so much time lying on back in the Other, Other Place, before he met the Near-Mother. It felt like if he pushed hard enough, he could step right through the Rock to whatever was on the other side. He sometimes wanted to give it a try, if solely because there was nothing else to do besides wait for something to happen.

But the Chains came from the Rock, keeping him confined to it, and the Chains hurt even more than breathing hurt, and sometimes they falred red hot with even more pain and he would spend hours screaming until he was hoarse as Stuff was put Inside him that didn't belong there. Bad Stuff. Like what had happened to Near-Mother just before they came to This Place by the Mean Man. He still remembered the Mean Man pushing Near-Mother down and... doing things... to her. Putting parts of himself into her that made her scream and cry. He had no words for the actions he'd seen, other than that they were upsetting to him, because he'd never heard Near-Mother scream like that. She was always quiet, unlike most of the people in the Other Place. He wondered what had happened to her. All he could say for sure was that she hadn't come to This Place with him and the Twin. He wasn't sure if he was glad or sad for that.

He stretched his arms, feeling the Chains clink and drag on his motion. He tried not to look at them, but it was hard. They were right there after all. Attached to him. Growing out of the back of his wrists like they were a natural part of his body. They weren't like the plastic operating table restraints he'd grown used to in the Other, Other Place. They didn't circle his wrists, they actually came OUT of his wrists, seamlessly growing out of his skin. There was no cuff to slip off, pulling on the chains was like pulling on his own bones! Other Chains were attached to his ankles the same way, and at several points on his spine, and more growing out of the back of his head, like hair made of metal. Some were thick, some were thin... all were cold and unpleasant, except when they were full of Bad Stuff, in which case they became hot and painful.

The Twin was chained too. He'd heard her screaming, just as he had screamed, trying to pull off the Chains back when they first got to This Place. His heart ached for not being able to see her. She was on the other side of the Rock from him. Out of sight. But they could still talk to each other, with some amount of effort, if they both pulled their Chains to the utmost in the same direction. But they'd run out of things to talk about before long. Or things he wanted to talk about anyway. Now the only thing to talk about was how much he hated This Place, and wanted Near-Mother to come and hold him and speak in her quiet voice again. And he knew that the Twin felt the same way. Even bound out of sight from each other, he could still feel her feelings, just as he always had, since the Green Rainstorm.

Recently... he had no idea of exact time in This Place, and every time he tried to count seconds, his count somehow came up different anyway... someone else had been brought to This Place. He wasn't sure how or when the New Person arrived, but suddenly there was Someone Else with Them. Well, not really "with" them, as the New Person was trapped inside the Rock. If he turned and looked up, he could easily see them, like a handprint in wet sand, except in reverse. He tried not to look. As unhappy as he was to be in This Place, the New Person was even less happy. He'd made the mistake of touching the New Person's leg the first time he saw them. The screaming inside his skull had taken hours to fade afterwards, and he still saw flashes of dreams and feelings that belonged to some pale haired boy that wasn't him. Wordless, pointless, mindless howling of anger and fear. Like the sound of a dying animal, stretched out across a thousand years for every single second.

It appeared that the Rock was slowly absorbing the New Person, breaking them down and making them part of the Rock itself, which only heightened his resolve not to touch the Rock in the future. This Place was bad, but inside the Rock seemed a lot worse. He sat back down and huddled up for warmth, and tried to count the seconds once more. There was nothing else to do but wait. He thought about the New Person in the Rock. Maybe waiting wasn't such a bad thing after all, if that was what happene when Not Waiting...