Heero Yuy stretched his arms over his head. After two weeks of being strapped to a bed, this new freedom of unshackled arms was well and truly appreciated. Of course…Heero turned his head to see the flickering bubble-aura around his bed.
"Don't get any ideas about escaping, Yuy," Zechs had warned. "One step beyond this area, and you'll be hit with a thousand volts of electricity." Heero wondered where they had been able to obtain an electric field generator small enough to set up in a room. (he would later find out that Relena had developed it to help with her security plans-not as a part of it, but to keep her brother and Duo from disturbing her when she was trying to concentrate) But it wasn't so much the electric field that kept him than the fact that, trying to make up for leaving his arms free, they had piled restraint upon restraint upon his legs. From the knees down, his body was a solid mass of metal cuffs and constraints.
Added to these new implements was a bedtray, directly over Heero's lap (no longer was he lying down, but half sitting up against the headboard), on which were several sheets of paper, a brand-new rubber, and two pencils with their tips newly sharpened.
The interrogation had begun.
As Heero looked blankly in the general direction of the papers, he remembered how the Colonel of OZ had talked to him earlier.
Zechs had come in early that morning, and supervised the moving and the releasing and tightening of restraints. Duo had released the arm cuffs and clapped on the new leg restraints, while Noin and Hilde kept their sidearms pointed directly at the young Rebel and Relena set up the electric field in the background.
Zechs had told Heero he wanted him to draw a map of the main rebel base, along with the coordinates. He must have known that Heero had been trained to hold blueprint-quality maps in his head and to transfer them to paper. He also must have known that Heero's reply to that would have been along the lines of blistering invective, because before Heero could start dipping into his extensive (and multilingual) collection of profanity, Zechs had smoothly cut him off.
"Because if you don't, you know, that means OZ is a complete failure as far as interrogating a captured enemy is concerned." He shook his head in mock-dismay. "We'd have to turn you over to the Federation. I don't think you'd want that. Because after they got the information from you-and you know they can -well. Those Federation soldiers are quite bloodthirsty. I honestly believe some of them are insane. They'd burn your Colonies to the ground, with no regard to women and children, no thought of taking prisoner-unlike, oh, say, OZ." On that chilling note, Zechs had left Heero alone, alone with the silence and his thoughts.
Heero was loyal to the Colonies, in spite of-or more likely, because-his father being a general in the Federation. He'd have rather died than betray them. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option here. He picked up a pencil, wondering if he could use its point to stab himself to death, before realizing what a ludicrous idea that was. He looked at the pencil again, twirling it around his fingers.
If he drew the map, the Rebel base would fall. His compatriots, his superiors, the pilots who good-naturedly jossed him about his new Gundam and the mechanics who kept the Colonies' arsenal in good condition, brave, if not always well-mannered, men and women-they'd all become prisoners of war, subject to jail sentences and court-martials.
If he didn't, they could all die a horrible, fiery death.
And there was another reason, one that the darkest, most secret part of him shuddered at. He was ashamed that it should influence his thinking, but it was there, and no matter how he tried to forget, it was always tickling at the edge of his consciousness, or popping up in the middle of his thoughts.
If they gave him to the Federation…he'd have to face his father again.
He took a deep breath, and looked around the room in the hopes of finding something to take his mind away from that possibility. It was empty except for him-not even his usual guard, Relena Marquise, was there. He wondered what had happened that had necessitated the sudden calling away of all those OZ officers.
Relena…Heero ran a hand through his hair, and gave a small sigh. Who the heck would have guessed that Brann was Relena? Of course, now that he looked back, the way Brann 'spoke' and the way Relena spoke, the way Brann moved and Relena (when she was moving) moved had a number of similarities…though of course Relena's speech was much more hostile than Brann's.
He thought back to that night, more than half a year past, that he had first met Brann…
When the two boys entered their room for the first time in five weeks, after a series of consecutive missions, they moved with the half-springy confidence of one who is assured of a good rest after a job well done.
Trowa threw his flight jacket and his green helmet onto his bunkbed, and darted off into the refresher unit. Heero set his things down more sedately, but more absent-mindedly; the dark-haired boy was intent on a box he held in between his hands. He sank into the only chair of the small room, still reading the back. He opened the multi-colored package, and, withdrawing a thick manual, settled down to read.
By the time Trowa emerged from his shower, fully dressed and looking much more approachable, he was intent on the second chapter. He looked up, slightly startled, when Trowa tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey Heero, your turn."
"Huh? Oh yeah." He laid the manual down on the table and walked into the 'fresher unit, grabbing some clothes out of his footlocker as he did so. As the sounds of running water began to fill the room, Trowa picked up the manual.
"Talairn?" he murmured as he leafed through the booklet. He shrugged, placed it back down, and began combing his hair carefully.
"Hey Heero," he said, as his partner emerged from the 'fresher pulling a sleeveless black shirt over his head, "Want to hit the L1 Megaplex? A bunch of us are heading over." By 'us', Trowa meant the others like them, the best young intelligence assets and soldiers the Rebellion could offer, the best-of-the-best-of-the-best-SIR! mavericks who came up with the most daring plans and executed the most suicidal missions-a group of which Trowa, Dorothy and Heero were the clearly acknowledged leaders.
"Ah, no thanks, Trowa," Heero replied as he finished tugging his shirt on. "I want to try out this new…ah….software that I picked up during that raid on…"
"Let me guess. When we were at that last mission, you didn't see why you couldn't destroy communication satellites and pick up the latest copy of the company's PC games at the same time, ne?" Trowa said dryly. He tossed the box over to his partner, who smirked in admission.
"Well, they have been raving about it for a long time and I got curious…"
"Just don't get caught," Trowa said. "Make sure no one can trace you when you go online."
Heero's face took on an offended expression-and Trowa knew that it was only half-joking. Heero was very proud of his computer skills. It was a running joke about how he took care of his laptop "better than me mom took care o' me," according to one wag.
"Never mind. Forget I said anything," Trowa said, rolling his eyes. "See you later."
"Bye," Heero mumbled absently, already getting his computer set up. Trowa sighed, shrugged as if to say 'Nothing I can do,' and left.
Heero barely noticed as he slipped the MD (what? In AC 195 you think they're still using CDs?) into the slot in front of the CPU. As the computer whirred past the installation process, he continued to read the manual. It was one of that rare breed that is actually fun to read, so he looked up, finished, to notice that his Talairn game had finished installing five minutes ago.
He immediately logged onto the Net, and registered himself. When the log-on screen showed, Heero grinned slightly and withdrew a VR helmet from the bottom of the desk that held all of his electronic paraphernalia (and there was a lot). He plugged it into the PC and dove into the Talairn world.
He started off in a large, sun-dappled forest glade. In the distance, he could see several small buildings, with signs proclaiming 'General Store', 'Blacksmith', 'Mage Guild' and the like. From the manual he knew that these were the places new players went to equip themselves for the game. He could see other players wandering around, some heading purposefully for the buildings, the others just taking in the newness of this VR world.
He looked down at himself. Heero had enough expertise with computers to build himself his own 'jacket', as they called the appearance of a player, instead of taking one of the prepackaged jackets the game offered. He had chosen to be a half-elf ranger, with fighter proficiency. Instead of the usual green wear the game provided those who chose the same trade, Heero had designed an outfit of loose dark-colored trousers, belted by a jade-green sash with silver runes running down its length, an open-sided black tunic and footwear that closely resembled modern hiking boots. More than that, Heero had redesigned his own physical appearance. His hair, still in the tousled mess it was in real-time, was now a lambent silver that gleamed and glistened like liquid metal. It stood out even more against his skin, which was a deep color like polished mahogany. His eyes were slit-pupiled silver, like the color of his hair. He had even added a long tail which was now swishing behind him.
Jeez, it was like he was a kid again, playing dress-up in Halloween. Not, he thought grimly, that he had ever had time to celebrate Halloween as a child… He looked around, and saw that several players would stop and gawk a moment at his unconventional appearance. He laughed to himself, amusement chasing away the grim memories of before.
He started to walk towards the blacksmith's, when he saw a figure that caught his eye. Like him, whoever was playing had programmed it so that they had their own unique appearance; it was a female mage, dressed in a snowy white dress that dared more than the usual. It left a great deal of her limbs bare, being sleeveless and high-cut, much to the appreciation of several ogling males. A cascade of long, fiery-red hair fell all the way to the small of her back, held from disarray by a circlet that seemed to be cut entirely out of a single ice-clear diamond. She had clear, fair skin with a slight golden tan, the type pop stars spend thousands of dollars on lotion and sunlamps and trips to the Bahamas to obtain. Her facial lines showed definite Roman influences, as if she'd modeled it after some ivory statue of a patrician maiden. At the corner of her deep gray eyes were two triangular marks, colored a deep cobalt-blue. A white cloak, fastened to her shoulder by a brooch made of gold and crystal, completed her appearance.
She was talking to another player, a person who had chosen the appearance of a paladin. Heero thought about walking over to introduce himself, shrugged, and decided to just walk on.
Relena turned and glared at yet another player who was ogling her. It wasn't her real body, true, but it still annoyed her nonetheless. Maybe she should have made her jacket a little more hag-like…but no. It had been too much fun building it, letting herself be a beauty she couldn't be in real-time.
The guy she'd glared at, an otherwise unremarkable fighter, hurriedly looked away-perhaps encouraged by the fact that the crystal-topped staff she had bought was sparking as miniature lightning bolts played around its length.
As he scurried away fearfully, Relena let the lightning die down, and sighed. She was here less for the battles (though, she had to admit, she was looking forward to that) than for the chance to walk around and talk with people. As an officer of OZ's elite corps, her real life supplied enough excitement that she didn't need to get it here. But it did mean that just once in a while she wanted to talk with people who hadn't been brought up to be soldiers-people who did go to Talairn for adventure that never popped up in their lives, people to whom the war was a story, was history taking place before their eyes-not a living breathing entity you had to fight, not a reality you were right smack-dab in the middle of.
She had initiated conversation with several newbies like her, but soon found pressing reasons to break them off.
'Is everyone here a brainless git?' She knew it was unfair; people here were too busy acclimating themselves to the new environment to be good company; but she still found herself extremely frustrated with them all.
'Maybe they'll be more intelligent farther out in the game,' she sighed, and headed into the forest.
Heero exited the Blacksmith's, feeling much better with new weapons on his person. He'd bought himself a longbow that was now slung over his shoulder, a quiver of arrows that was magicked to never run out, an undecorated bastard sword on his hip in a plain leather scabbard, and a dagger for his boot. Every weapon was enchanted in some way or the other. He'd had the money for that because unlike most other newbies, he hadn't spent much at all in the way of armor-he'd only bought himself a pair of bracers.
He'd already been to the apothecary's, where he'd bought a few vials of Healing Potion. Feeling himself suitably equipped, he walked into the shadow of the towering forest behemoths that ringed the clearing.
He had walked enough to get a respectable distance from the clearing when he heard it-the hiss and crackle of lightning magic. He darted off in the direction of the sounds. As he slipped through the forest growth, he saw that white-garbed mage he'd noticed earlier in the glade. She held her staff in front of her, and was hurling lightning bolts and spear-like icicles like there was no tomorrow.
He came nearer, and saw why. In front of her was a huge scaled monster, something out of legends and nightmares. If the situation hadn't been so serious, Heero was reasonably sure that the elegance and majesty of the draconian form would have been worth admiring, but now was not the time. Whenever one of the mage's magic attacks reached the dragon, it opened a huge black-bleeding wound that unfortunately sealed shut in a few seconds.
Heero said a string of words that the game automatically censored out. He'd been one of the few players who'd taken the time to read the list of monsters in the booklet, and he knew what it was. That was a stardrake, a dragon of the sky-race, resistant to physical attacks up to l.5 and auto-healing against magic attacks up to l.4.
The problem was, they were both l.2.
Still, he ran forward to stand at the mage's side, nocking an arrow as he did so. She gave him a grateful glance, but almost immediately returned to spellcasting. Firebolts and arrows sang through the air, crashing against the dragon's black hide-to no avail.
They continued to back away, but the dragon kept getting nearer. Then, by chance, it happened. One of the mage's icicles hit the dragon, opening another black wound. But before it closed, one of Heero's arrows sailed into the wound.
For the first time, the stardrake opened its mouth to roar in pain. Heero and the red-haired mage exchanged startled glances. Then both sets of eyes narrowed in cooperative glee. From then on, they began coordinating their attacks-the mage would send a bolt of fire, ice or lightning sizzling through the air, and there would be a single arrow flying directly behind, to lodge in whatever wound the magic attack would open. In a few minutes, the stardrake resembled a pincushion, so peppered was it with arrows.
It was weaving all over the forest, crashing into trees, woozy from the blood loss.
The numbers of trees it knocked against set the air resounding with the noise of their falls and the ground vibrating as if an earthquake had struck. Heero set his bow down, praying that the dragon wouldn't crush it underfoot, and unsheathed his sword. He gripped the hilt firmly in both hands, and yelled a single word to the mage.
The mage understood; she stepped back and began murmuring a string of words as Heero dashed forward. A few leaps from tree branch to tree branch brought him on level with the stardrake's face, just as the blade of the bastard sword became surrounded by an aura of white-hot balefire. He crouched, mentally cursed whoever had programmed smell into the game as a wash of hot, acrid dragonbreath flew into his face, and drove the blazing sword into the stardrake's great yellow eye.
With a shriek of pain that would probably send all the forest wildlife into seclusion for a week, the stardrake fell heavily onto the ground. Heero leapt down and retrieved his sword from the death-glazed eye. He looked at the thick yellow slime and black blood all over it and grimaced. He could take gore with the best of them but only when they were the proper colors. And no slime! He absolutely hated slime.
He wiped the sword clean as best he could on some grass. As he straightened up, he noticed the sound of applause rolling through the forest, and looked around, surprised, to see a whole crowd of players ringed around the battlefield, clapping. He ducked his head and scowled, not liking to be the center of attention. It was obvious the mage had less of a problem as she walked over to his side, smiling and waving at the others.
A single person approached them. The badge on his chest, emblazoned with a basilisk curled around a stylized letter T, proclaimed him as one of the employees of Talairn. It was the job of this man and other sysops (the game was so huge it needed more than one…more than a hundred, as a matter of fact) to make sure the game was running correctly, that players obeyed the rules, etc. They hardly displayed their badges, liking to keep a low profile, so when they did show them, most players took notice.
"Nice work," the man complimented the two of them. He nudged the dead stardrake with his foot. "There must be a bug in the system…these suckers aren't supposed to show up until the Valley of the Lightning. But you two managed to take him down nonetheless, I see." He smiled at them, and vanished, along with the body of the fallen dragon.
Later on, when they had managed to escape from all the curious newbies who wanted to know how they had gotten powerful enough to take down a l.5 monster, the mage said, "You know, that was a nice bit of teamwork we did there. What say we partner off?"
Heero shrugged. "Why not? It would probably be useful to have someone who can do magic nearby."
"Cool. Oh, by the way, my handle's Brann," she said, sticking her hand out.
"I'm Tenka," Heero replied, shaking her hand.
And so began their habit of gaming together. With his lifestyle, Heero's gaming schedule could hardly be called steady; he'd go for a month without touching his computer, then spend the better part of three days online. Luckily enough, Brann's schedule was similarly staggered, so it was a rare gaming session that they didn't have together.
As they wandered over the virtual world of Talairn, they talked. Not only about the game, as most players did, but also about the world outside. Not much on details; Heero never had to offer what he did or where he lived, nor did he learn the same about her-but about what she liked, what she didn't and what she wished, he learned. It was amazing to him how someone with such a different bringing-up to him, one not dedicated solely to war, could have so much in common with him.
The last time he had been in Talairn with Brann, they had been riding wyverns towards the city of Ral'asha. There had been a battle with a wild blue dragon, which they defeated but lost their wyvern mounts in doing so. They'd had to walk.
As they walked, they discussed a recent battle in Talairn that was a hot topic among the players. It involved three parties-the country of Shea, led by a player called Red Wean who had gained kingship by overthrowing the previous ruler; the Eshk Empire, who invaded; and Shaan. Shaan was supposedly the best friend of Red Wean, some people said even in real-time. However, real-time or VR, Shaan was certainly not friends with Red Wean anymore. He had sold the battleplans of Shea to the Eshk Empire-some parts of it he had planned himself-along with the plans to counter it.
Heero had been particularly vehement in his denouncement of Shaan. Brann, who had been much more philosophical about the whole thing, had laughed at him.
"Tenka, it's a lot less heinous than you're making it out to be. Just because you've got enough loyalty in you to put Fido to shame isn't any reason to hold others to the same standard. I hear the gamepoints they were offering Shaan were enough for him to win his own kingdom. So while what he did was bad, he doesn't deserve to be hung-and-quartered, o advocate of loyalty!"
'Advocate of loyalty…' Heero sighed. He looked at his fist and noticed he still had the pencil gripped tightly. He looked at the paper and started in surprise. If he hadn't been practically bolted to the bed, he might have jumped.
Somehow, during his trip down memory lane, his hand, apparently apropos of nothing, had taken the pencil and drawn.
A few hours later, Heero, who had been asleep, was awakened by the sound of the door sliding open. He blinked, resisting the urge to rub his eyes, as Relena, Duo and Zechs stepped through.
Zechs smiled as he saw the used pencils and eraser lying on the bedtray. He strode over with long, eager steps, picked up the sheet of paper…and began yelling. "What the hell is this?!"
Surprised, Duo and Relena hurried over. Relena jumped up and plucked the paper from her brother's grasp as Duo hooked his colonel under the arms, trying to restrain him as he practically lunged at Heero.
"What do you think this is? Art class? That's not a map, that's a…"
"…a stardrake," Relena interrupted quietly. She stared at the paper. The long sweep of neck as the huge horned head angled for a better view, the gleaming obsidian claws, leathery wings folded in close to the massive, dark-shaded body-there was no mistaking it. "I've seen it in Talairn."
"That kooky game of yours?" Duo asked, only to grin shamelessly as Relena glared at him. Relena stepped forward and looked squarely at Heero. "You play in Talairn?"
Heero shrugged. "I dropped in once or twice-on my friend's account. Found a picture on the JPEG archive of some webpage."
"Oh," Relena said softly. For a moment, she had wondered if…but she had dismissed the possibility before Heero spoke the words that made it sure.
Ignoring all of this, Zechs wrenched himself free of Duo. He glared at Heero. "Fine, be that way, Rebel. We'll just give you to the Federation. I wish them better luck. And conveniently, a Federation official is dropping by in three days on an inspection tour."
He whirled around sharply on his heel and beckoned to his two subordinates. As the three of them left the room, Zechs called over his shoulder. "We'll just let General Lowe take you along after he visits."
If any of them had stayed in the room, they would have noticed how Heero turned absolutely white at the words.
AN: Ha ha! I'm done, I'm done! Many thanks to Peygan and Axisor for their encouragement. It's been, like, six months since I turned out a new chapter of Alternatives, I think. Whoo-hoo! =D I can't believe it's finished. Sometimes it seemed like it would never be.
Inspiration for the gameworld of Talairn taken from Sarxos (Tom Clancy) Diablo (Blizzard) and Forgotten Realms (TSR) I'm a fantasy nut, so that's why I wrote so much on that part. (grin)
Belated Merry Christmas and early Happy New Year!