The woman behind the green door - man, I still couldn't think of that without laughing - wasn't anything like what I'd expected. She was pretty, for one, not bimbo at all. Just sort of cute in a tomboy kid sister kind of way. She also looked like she hadn't slept well in quite some time. Her eyes had that hollow, hungry look, and she was ever so slightly thinner than was healthy. Even stranger, she was wearing her bathrobe, a fluffy green affair, even though it was well after noon. "Please, come in," she said. Now, I could detect the slight hint of an accent, probably German considering her last name.
Wufei and I looked at each other. I shrugged, then he followed suit. We stepped into the apartment with great caution, leaving our empty boxes sitting in the hallway so our hands would be free. She didn't look like much of a threat, but you never knew these days.
The apartment was spotless with that particular sort of ruthless undertone I'd seen in every German I'd ever met. The furnishings were mostly neutral, with dark greens thrown here and there, nice and soothing. The entire thing was a single room, the kitchen divided from the living space with a beige countertop that could be used for cooking or as a table.
The woman backed away from us the moment we stepped in, shoving her hands into the pockets of her robe. She didn't stop backing until she'd reached the apartment's small living area, where she sat down in the only chair. Her posture was odd, as if she was in pain, and very defensive. She looked even tenser than I felt. "Please close the door behind you," she said.
Wufei frowned. "Why?"
"Because you're closer to the door than I am, and that way I don't have to get behind you. I don't want you to take anything the wrong way," she said, dead serious, "because you've done some rather not-nice things in the past. But the door needs to be shut, because my neighbors will be walking down the hall soon."
I snorted, then pulled the door shut, making certain it was unlocked. "I like a gal that knows how to do her research."
"Research. Right." She shook her head.
Wufei moved up to the small counter, keeping it between him and the girl. I leaned against the wall next to the door, ready to facilitate our escape at a moment's notice. Paranoid, us? "So, if you don't mind me asking, lady, who are you? You're not exactly the person we were expecting."
"I imagine not." Her laugh was a bitter one indeed. "My name is Hilde Schbeiker."
Wufei shot me a look, but I played it cool. "That makes sense, I guess. Any relation to - "
She cut me off cold. "Dr. Schbeiker was my father. It's okay, you don't have to pretend you're interested in his work or anything. I know you're not here for that."
"Actually, at the moment, I'm more interested in the 'was' you threw in there. Has something happened to your father, Ms. Schbeiker?" I asked.
"He's not dead, if that's what you mean, but he may as well be." She drew her hands from her pockets so that she could clasp them together. Her knuckles were white. "He's certainly not my father any more."
I returned Wufei's look, with interest. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"There used to be a man that sang me to sleep and took me for long walks in the park. He bought me toys and held my hand when I had to go to the dentist. Then his work took him here, and my mother divorced him." She raked her hand through her hair. "He invited me here a few months ago, when I finished school, and I came because I hadn't seen him in over a year." Suddenly tears were running from her eyes. She let out a strangled sob, and then another. "The man that picked me up at the airport... wasn't him! He took my hand and I saw... God protect me!"
We were at a loss for a moment. No guy likes to deal with a crying woman. Personally, I would rather have been disarming landmines using only my teeth. "Smooth move," I muttered at Wufei.
"This was all your idea," he growled back at me.
I ignored him. "Go on, work your magic. You're Mr. New Age and Smooth."
Muttering murderously to himself all the while in Chinese, he crossed the scant floor space and knelt by her chair as I kept my brain wide open for any hints of supernatural funkiness. Just as he was about to touch her arm, she jerked back.
"Don't touch me! Just... don't touch me. You don't want me to know that much. I don't want to know that much!"
Wufei snatched his hand back, then shifted back on his heels. "Then you need to calm down and explain, Hilde. I think we will want to help you, but you must tell us the situation first."
"I know," she said, scrubbing at her eyes. I could tell now that she bit her nails, and that there were a lot of worrying cuts and abrasions on her hands and wrists.
Wufei pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and draped it across her knee, careful not to touch her.
"Thank you," Hilde said thickly, picking it up. She closed her eyes for a moment, stiffening, her mouth twisting into an odd look of pain. "I see," she whispered, opening her eyes and then wiping her nose as if nothing odd was going on, "I'll try to explain. But please... don't think I'm crazy. You might already, but you have to believe me!"
I waved off the approach of hysteria as reassuringly as I could. "Lady, trust me, we don't call anyone crazy at this point."
She blew her nose and nodded. I could have sworn that Wufei winced. "When... he... took my hand, I saw things. I saw disjointed images... blood, people screaming, broken mirror, a white room, a knife, a needle. It was all so horrible!"
She cried again, and this time I didn't even try to interfere. The images she described rolled through my mind - it was all too familiar. I didn't like it one bit, and I liked the way none of it added up even less.
"I'm sorry," she murmured, her voice thick.
I let Wufei do the talking. "It's alright. Go one if you can."
"Since then, I've been seeing things. Every time I touch someone, every time I touch something that's not mine. Sometimes I don't even have to touch anything at all. I'll be washing dishes, and suddenly I'm somewhere else, watching people I don't know." When she looked up, her eyes were red, but finally dry. "That's how I knew you were coming. I know you can help me. You have to help me!"
I shook my head. "What do you want from us, lady? We don't have a lot of give."
She was twisting the handkerchief so hard that I was surprised it didn't tear. When she spoke, her voice was so soft that I could barely hear her. "I need you to kill him."
Maybe I should have expected it. But it made something inside me die to hear a civilian talk like that. It wasn't something I ever wanted to have to expect.
"I need you to find the monster that's wearing my father's face to do terrible things, and kill it. Please. It has to be stopped."
I shrugged when Wufei glanced at me, so he took the lead. "We had already been planning to do so. Can you tell us anything else?"
"No. I've been hiding here ever since I arrived. I don't know anything that could help you. I don't want to know any more - I want to keep the true memories of my father pure."
That was a big fucking help. I pulled a scrap of paper out of my pocket and wrote one of my safe e-mail addresses down on it. "I'll leave some contact info on your counter. Let me know immediately if you think of anything. The sooner we find him, the sooner this will be over."
She uncurled her fingers, staring at her hands as if they belonged to someone else. "It's never going to be over."
It was one of my stupid little impulses, but I'd learned to go with them a long time ago. I reached her chair in a few steps while I dug my gloves out of my pocket. They were new, black leather, and had been a bitch and a half to steal. I didn't hesitate for an instant as I held them out to her. "Here. I haven't worn these much, so they shouldn't be too bad I hope. You can't hide in your apartment forever."
She stared at me for a long moment as if expecting a lie to be written across my face before she took the gloves, careful not to touch me. "Thank you."
"By the way, we never introduced ourselves, huh. My name's Duo. This is Wufei." I jerked my thumb at him, giving her a big grin before becoming serious again. "I know how it is, Hilde. I woke up my morning and my world went to shit too. Twice, even. You can do it, even if it sucks at the moment."
Hilde only shook her head, clutching the gloves to her chest. "I don't know if I believe you."
"It's okay. You will. Ask Wufei, I'm never wrong." I grinned.
Wufei laughed. "Well, he's fairly certain of that fact, at least."
That got Hilde to laugh as well, when I made a face. End things on a positive note - that was the name of the game. We left her smiling, though we regained our seriousness the minute her door closed behind us.
"I don't like it," Wufei said.
"That makes two of us."
We walked to the elevator. "And the mission is tonight."
I stabbed the down button with one finger. "If we get a go message."
"Do you for one moment think that we won't?"
"No. And I want it, Wufei. So bad I can taste it. I want this done, I want this bullshit stopped. Add another life fucked up to the tally."
We stepped into the elevator and headed down. Wufei shook his head once the doors were safely closed. "Don't let this mission become personal."
I slammed my hand against the elevator wall. It didn't really make me feel any better. "I've got enough bad shit in my head, man. I don't want any more."
"It's too late for that," Wufei said.
"It always is," I agreed.
On our way home, we swung by a couple of our mailboxes and I took a minute to download the independent surveillance I had going. The Docs normally were the ones to keep an eye on the big picture - that was how they knew to give us a go ahead - but lately I'd been doing a little of my own research. We'd been caught with our pants down and been forced to improvise one too many times because of stuff they'd conveniently forgotten to tell us.
Wufei sorted through the reams and reams of paper we'd picked up, sitting cross-legged on his bed with his hair unbound and his glasses threatening to slip off the end of his nose. I reviewed the footage, going through most of the frames in fast forward since it was pretty boring shit. When I got to the stuff from the last couple of hours, it was a different matter entirely. Large trucks and vans, most of them unmarked, had begun to arrive at the lab. Workers were scurrying around, stacking piles of boxes and pallets of crates.
"Shit," I muttered.
"Is something amiss?" Wufei set his stack of paper down. I could have sworn I heard him let out a sigh of relief.
"Looks like this whole deal might be a moot point. They started moving a lot of shit out of the lab today, no warning whatsoever."
"Are they striking the entire operation?"
I forwarded through the last couple hours, frame by frame. Since the little camera I'd rigged only took pictures every four minutes, it didn't take too long. "I don't think so. They carted a lot of shit off, but not enough to make a fully functioning lab. I'm guessing they're due for an inspection or something and they just got the incriminating shit the hell out of dodge."
"But we can't be absolutely certain."
"Nothing in life is, man. That's my best guess. In my inexpert opinion, we should still be go for the operation tonight. And we'd better hope it is tonight, in case they're just taking their time and finishing things up tomorrow."
Wufei shuffled the papers together and straightened them up into a neat stack that he tucked under his bed. "We only have a few more hours. We should start getting ready."
"Yeah, sure," I muttered, not really paying attention. I was going back through the footage once more, slower this time. There'd been something odd, somewhere between frame 10213 and 10246. There it was - the barest glimpse of one of the pallets being loaded on to a white truck. Four silver tubes that looked just about the right size to squeeze a person in to. Even better, I was pretty sure the objects next to those tubes were body bags. "Oh, isn't that cute."
"What is it?"
I held the viewer out to Wufei. He examined the frozen frame for a moment, and frowned. "Human experimentation."
"That's sure my guess. Not really enough evidence to build a case, but it's sure got my hackles up. And they just fucking moved it."
He shoved his glasses up higher on his nose. "We may be able to find out where this equipment was moved when we break in tonight. If they've gone to a more secure or remote location, luck may be with us and we'll just be able to strike with our Gundams."
"I sure hope so. I want these fuckers more than ever. And they work for Oz. That's the best part. No way Treize can't know about this shit, man, no way. His ass is mine."
"We'll work on it. I think it'll take a good deal more planning, not to mention resources." He said.
I laughed. Yeah, I was well aware how insane I sounded. "Yeah. He's going to be a tough nut to crack. But what can I say, a guy's got to have goals."
Wufei snorted, pulling his hair back into a pony tail and taking his glasses off. He tucked them in a black case that he stowed in one of the desk drawers. "I'll get the supplies together. Get online and watch for the go message, perhaps gather a little information. I'll be back soon."
"Sure thing." I gave him the thumbs up as he left. Wufei had just stuck himself with the more difficult part of the job, and I really didn't mind. It was kind of funny, but for such a stationary, Zen kind of guy, he sure hated holding still before a mission these days. I guess everyone had their way of working the nervous energy off. Me, I talked non-stop or screamed my head off on missions where we had mecha. For covert ops, I'd spend my time building new and nasty attack progs to hit the systems with, which was satisfying in its own - if somewhat less visceral - way.
I took the time to rebraid my hair nice and tight before anything else, the better to make sure no spare wispies escaped. There was nothing quite like being in the middle of a delicate op and having a stray hair attempt to crawl up your nose. It wasn't an experience I much cared to repeat.
The next step was to check my guns, which took all of three minutes since I checked them every day. That was all I really needed to do, so I fired up the laptop, told the little black box to get me onto a secure network, and opened up the attack prog I'd been dinking with last week. It was only about halfway done, but it was going to end up being one of my most insidious and nasty yet. Administrators ran into my shit and cried. I was about halfway through tweaking a subroutine that was supposed to redirect outgoing security system traffic when a message window popped up. It was white text on a blue background, which meant it was from one of the other guys, not a contact or a random software jockey.
Qdog > you there, duo?
DMan > Yeah, of course. I don't just sit on the internet for my health like ol' Spandex Buns.
Qdog > that's what i was wondering. you only really ever hop on like this when there's a mission.
DMan > What's so unusual about that?
I saved the progress I'd made on the prog and closed the window down, then shuffled through the pencil drawer of the desk until I found my little stash of stolen restaurant toothpicks. I tore the cellophane wrapper off one and stuck it in the corner of my mouth. Mint flavored, yum yum.
Qdog > i was actually going to ask if you'd heard from the docs recently. trowa and i haven't, and when i caught heero on line a couple hours ago, he said they hadn't contact him since they sent him to kyoto.
Huh. I started to gnaw on the toothpick in earnest, kicking back in the chair so I could put my feet up on the already abused desk.
DMan > I still don't get what's bugging ya, man. It's not like they were regular pen pals or something. They'd just pop in when someone had to die or something needed to be blown up and ignore us the rest of the time.
Qdog > but still, you have a mission now... DMan > Yeah, but since we've been split up so it's just me'n 'Fei, it makes sense that they'd just tell the two of us and not the rest of you. Loose Lips Sink Ships sort of thing. Not that I think you'd talk, but the less people know about anything, the less of a security risk there is, right?
Qdog > i guess youre right.
Minutes passed, and I reduced the toothpick to a few nasty shreds of wood pulp. I fished another one out of the desk as I spat the yuck out into the trash can. When I looked back up, he still hadn't said anything else. DMan > So, Q, now that we've got all that figured out, you want to tell me what's really bothering you?
Qdog > i don't know, i really don't. i guess it just seems strange that you guys have a mission, and none of us do.
DMan > It's only been a couple days, Q. Chill, you'll get your shot soon enough.
Qdog > honestly, i dont think id mind if i never did, duo. i know were doing this because the colonies need to be free, or at least equal, but i cant help but think that all were doing is trying to start another war. and i still cant believe that war does good.
DMan > I really wonder too, man. But I also remember what Oz did to my home. And what they're doing now, and I can't let that continue. That's why we're on the prowl today...looks like a bioweapons lab of some sort. Maybe human experimentation.
Qdog > i see.
Qdog > it's just...damn, i hate sounding like this. i have a bad feeling, duo. about you and wufei, and now about this mission.
I kept smiling, but my stomach began to twist itself in a knot, and I sat up straight, putting my feet back on the floor.
DMan > What do you mean? Do you mean "I have a bad feeling" or "I Have A Bad Feeling" here?
Qdog > ...the latter, i think.
Before I could type out a response, the laptop let off that annoying little trill that I'd set up to indicate a priority message. I pulled it up and decrypted it out of habit; I'd been doing this shit for what felt like most my life. The header information checked out as from G, and it simply read:
Mission is go.
That was that. We were good to go, and the mission parameters were confirmed. I erased the message and made sure it was completely out of the laptop's memory before returning to the message window.
DMan > Well, bad feeling or no, we just got the go message. It all checks out, so we're off as soon as Wufei gets back with the last of the supplies. I have some shit I need to get ready now, so I'd better log off.
Qdog > just be careful.
DMan > C'mon, Q, this is me we're talking about.
Qdog > no wonder im worried.
DMan > Bite me, man. When I get back with nary a scratch on my beautiful hide, you owe me a fucking six pack.
Qdog > as long as you get back safely, no problem.
DMan > And I'm not talking about the wimpy regular cans. I'm talking the big one Liter cans, got it?
Qdog > :) fine, fine, you'll have it.
DMan > Talk to you later. Don't worry so much.
I logged off and shut the laptop down, then locked it in the big desk drawer. It wouldn't really do much if someone wanted my computer, but it made me feel better. Wufei got back while I was wiring timers on to some explosives and trying not to burn myself with the soldering gun. I wasn't anywhere the demolitions man that Trowa or Heero was, but I was still better at it than Wufei. My eyes stinging, I looked up at him as he dumped a bag of clothing and other gear on his bed and began sorting things out. "We got the go, man."
"I figured as much."
I nodded, returning to my work. "G gave us a euphrates go ahead, so this should be a milk run. No worries."
"No worries," Wufei repeated.
I'd told Quatre the same thing. Too bad I was having a hard time believing it myself now.