*** Change of POV and/or scene
"Agreed. But we need to have plans in place so that when - if - the time comes, we will be ready. We will not allow Master Quatre and his friends to be made the scapegoats in this."
"We've been makin' contingency plans since before the Kid ever went out on his first mission. Gettin' them out and away's the easy..."
"Company, boss! Better get in here!"
Howard cut off in mid-sentence at the urgent but soft call from the front office. Rashid made a swift hand-motion and the Maguanacs scattered, fading into the shadowy depths of the hangar as the Sweepers quickly snatched up tools and busied themselves. Rashid took up a silent listening post beside the office door while Howard continued through it.
"What the hell..." Howard muttered as he recognized the young woman getting out of the car. An older woman climbed out too but after a few moments of vehement discussion, she got back in again and Relena continued towards the office by herself. Pargan remained standing patiently beside the black sedan.
Howard met Relena at the door. "Well, well, what a surprise! What brings such a lovely young lady out to visit *this* old scoundrel?"
"A farewell visit," Relena explained.
Howard's gut knotted as he noted the dark shadows and stress lines that even a careful makeup job hadn't quite managed to disguise. Her voice was light but had a forced quality to it. "A farewell visit?" he inquired as he ushered her inside.
"My - mother - is waiting, so I have to be quick. May I speak freely - Howie?" The young blonde tilted her head slightly. She touched one ear and raised her eyebrows questioningly.
'My god... she wants to know if it's *safe* to talk openly... and nobody but the Kid calls me Howie... What the hell's she up to?' "Go right ahead, kiddo. We're all family around here," Howard said congenially. "But why don't you come on through to the back? I'm sure the others will want to say goodbye too." He gently steered Relena into the hangar where white noise generators and other anti-snooping equipment would keep the conversation private.
Rashid raised one eyebrow as Relena spotted him and exclaimed, "Oh *good*. Now I don't have to try to find a way to reach you too." Swiftly and rather bitterly, she explained, "I've basically been told to be a good little girl and run home to my dolls. What little power I had is gone.
"Une is out for Chang Wufei's blood; she wants revenge for Treize's death. Quatre's in trouble over those colonies he blew up under Zero's influence. Several of the councillors had friends or family on that shuttle that Heero took out and they're after *him*. The execution order for Duo is technically still in force from his previous capture by Oz. Trowa - well, they're having trouble finding anything specific to pin on him but I think they're going to end up just condemning all five Gundam pilots as a group anyway.
"Anyone who was part of a recognized military force should come out of this okay, even the White Fang soldiers, but the colonies *repudiated* the Gundams so they're being treated as terrorists, not an official military force. The government is completely ignoring the fact that the Gundams were directly responsible for stopping White Fang from blowing up large portions of the planet."
Relena spread her hands and shook her head unhappily as she continued, "_Libra_ firing on the planet brought the war home to people who had never really thought about it before. They're scared and angry. They *want* someone to blame. Someone to punish. They really don't care *who*, but the pilots were in the news a great deal during the war. They're a very convenient target for all of that fear and outrage. I don't think that there's any question that the World Nation is going to use the Gundam pilots to give the public what it thinks it wants."
Rashid swore, then immediately said, "My apologies, Miss Relena."
"No apology is necessary," she said grimly. "This is a huge mess. Made worse by the fact that other than *this*, the peace accords are shaping up *extremely* well. Earth has made substantial concessions to the colonies' demands. Overall, the chances of this peace lasting look very promising."
She hesitated for a moment, then added, "But I would recommend that - regardless of the pilots - the rest of you be very, very careful. Anyone with ties to the Gundams will certainly be under close scrutiny." Meeting Rashid's eyes, she commented, "Armed forces that are not officially under government control will be on very shaky ground." Switching her gaze to Howard, she continued, "And the Sweepers Organization has a reputation that is..." The young woman shrugged daintily and wrinkled up her nose, "...questionable, shall we say?"
Howard winced and nodded his understanding. The Sweepers had basically been privateers for years, raiding Earth-owned ships to obtain supplies for the colonial rebellion. And the Maguanacs had no ties to government, nor even to the Winner family. Their loyalty was to Quatre Winner himself. Neither group would fit very well into the new government's vision of peace. They would face suspicion and close monitoring at best.
"I must go now; my mother will be getting impatient. I told her that I owed you the courtesy of a visit to thank you for my safety during that last battle; that's the only reason she agreed to bring me here before returning home." Relena hugged Howard and lifted up onto the tips of her toes to whisper in his ear, "Thank you. And give my thanks and my love to the boys. Good luck."
With that, she whirled and was gone, leaving Howard staring thoughtfully at the tiny disk she'd pressed into his hand as she left.
Duo stayed curled in the corner of his bunk despite the fact that his supper tray was sitting in the small delivery alcove, soup slowly congealing as it cooled. He managed to force down just enough food each day to keep himself from getting too weak, just enough to keep from being force-fed; trying to eat more just made him sick.
The first few days - hell, the first couple of *weeks* - hadn't been too bad. He'd been locked up before; he didn't like it but he could deal with it. He'd figured that Earth and the colonies would hash things out in the peace talks and then they'd all be let go.
Finding out that the colonies hadn't spoken up for the Gundam pilots - hadn't reversed their repudiation earlier in the war - had been a nasty shock. 'Guess we're still expendable...' he thought bitterly.
Duo closed his eyes and tried to meditate. To visualize himself out in the open. He hadn't been out of this windowless, featureless *box* since he'd been brought here. No bars here, just solid, virtually seamless walls with tiny grates near the ceiling. No one came into his cell either; all communication was via a vidscreen embedded in the wall; food and other supplies came from an alcove in the wall.
The faint hint of claustrophobia that he'd started to develop after his and Wufei's close call was rapidly turning into a major problem. So far he'd managed to keep from having a full-blown panic attack by judicious use of meditation but he wasn't sure how long he could keep the claustrophobia at bay. He'd woken up gasping for air three nights in a row now and had caught himself gasping a few times during the day as well. He *had* to keep it a secret; he didn't want to end up drugged to the gills to keep him calm and he knew damn well that was the most likely scenario if anyone found out. 'I don't want to spend what little is probably left of my life drugged out of my mind...'
Carefully settling his breathing into a rhythmic pattern, Duo opened his eyes and picked up a book. At least they allowed him that much entertainment; he'd *really* go nuts if he had to sit here all day with *nothing* to do except calisthenics and katas. 'I wonder how Heero and the others are holding up...'
Heero completed another set of pushups then allowed himself to lie on the cool floor for a few minutes. He hadn't done so much pointless exercising since his training days. But he could only do so much reading and then he simply *had* to be active.
And he couldn't help worrying about the others. Quatre *craved* human contact; Heero wondered sometimes whether perhaps he actually *needed* it in a literal sense. And Trowa was really still recovering from the trauma of his amnesia; being left alone was probably not exactly the best thing for him. Wufei - well, he was probably handling things reasonably well, though he might be doing too much brooding. But the L5 pilot enjoyed reading; between that and his katas, he would probably be okay.
Duo though... Heero was worried about him.
He knew that Duo had been somewhat claustrophobic ever since Tsuberov turned off the air to the cell that time. He and Duo had shared a room on _Peacemillion_ and it had been impossible for Duo to completely hide his problem with the tiny, stale room. If his best friend's circumstances were anything like his - Duo was probably having a very, very rough time.
'If they convict us and sentence us to lifetime solitary confinement...' Heero swallowed hard at the thought. Rolling onto his back, he stared up at the ceiling and wondered whether perhaps a death sentence would be preferable.
Quatre raised his hands and closed his eyes. They wouldn't allow him to have his violin in reality but with his eyes tightly closed and his hands in position, he could almost - *almost* - feel its familiar weight and hear the soft, mournful tones of the music his stay here would inspire. If he tried very, very hard, he could even imagine the sorrowful accompaniment of a silver-toned flute.
And on the rare occasion when he *did* manage to "hear" the music in his mind, he could - just barely - manage to push his spaceheart to its limits and sense, faintly, the others. Seething, frustrated rage, tightly leashed - Wufei. Calm resignation tinged with worry - Heero. Controlled desperation, bitterness, a deepening darkness of spirit - Duo. And last - but strongest - the still, shadowy patience that almost seemed to brighten in response to his spaceheart's ephemeral touch...
Trowa leaned back against the wall of his cell, eyes closed, mind filled with the memory of music twining, two melodies interwoven in a duet that was both beautiful and sorrowful. A duet that he did not remember, despite the fact that most of his memories seemed to have returned.
The music made him sad, mournful for the absence of his friends. Yet at the same time, the memory of those magical times spent with Quatre, the stress and turmoil of their lives temporarily lost in the beauty of the music they shared, lifted his spirits and drew his thoughts away from the upcoming trial and its near-inevitable conclusion.
Wufei completed the last movement of the kata and held his final position for several long moments. He assessed his physical state critically and decided that he would have to begin again. He was not yet exhausted enough to keep the frustration, the bitter rage at the sheer injustice of this all at bay.
'I would have died in battle willingly but this... To be caged like a wild beast, put through this petty mockery of "justice", this absurd sham of a trial, *this* is something altogether different. It is a disgrace, a mockery. No way at all for a warrior to die. And we are, all five, warriors.
'I envy Trieze. He at least died as a warrior should.
Wufei flung himself into another kata. It was a pale imitation of battle but it was all he had.
"Okay, folks, last call if you want out. It's a non-stop, one-way trip from here on," Howard warned sternly. No one moved. That was not a surprise.
Relena's concerns had proved to be well-founded. The formal announcement condemning the pilots had been made mere hours after her visit and a public ceremony to destroy the Gundams had been held the very next day. Any chance of a public outcry reversing the government's condemnation of the pilots vanished in the wake of that; the media exposure of the event itself together with archival news and military footage of the Gundams causing mass destruction had reinforced public outrage.
There had been a trial - one quickly scheduled and rushed through while public sentiment ran high - but it was little more than a formality. There was no real chance of anything but a conviction and Howard had no doubt that would be the judgement handed down today. The first whispered rumours of a full investigation into the pilots' ties with the Maguanacs and Sweepers were already making the rounds.
The time for waiting and speculation was over. It was time for action.
The disk that Relena had provided had given them security passcodes and detailed floorplans for the building complex that was home to the World Nation Council. The passcodes weren't good for long but they lasted long enough for the Sweepers' best hackers to make a more permanent way into the security system - and, even more importantly, the personnel records.
Their best shot at rescuing all five pilots would be while they were all there for the trial since they had each been kept in strict isolation at separate secure facilities prior to that and would undoubtedly be split up again immediately afterwards. Howard and Rashid had been in agreement to wait until after the trial anyway. Their people were in place - had been since before the trial began - as janitors and reporters, security and gawkers, technicians and maintenance - ready to act when the time came.
There was always the faint, distant chance that things would go differently than expected; unlikely though it was, an acquittal or last-minute dropping of charges would be far better than rescue followed by life on the run. The judge's decision would be handed down today; sentencing was scheduled for tomorrow. The time to act fell in the short time span between those events.
A time that was now upon them.
Rashid scowled darkly at the trial broadcast, not liking the pinched, bitter looks on the pilots' faces. They all looked thin, tired, and drawn. Far too old for their years. All so very controlled and dignified in the face of the jeers and insults directed at them by the crowds watching the trial. None of them willing to give their detractors the satisfaction of drawing a reaction from them.
Flicking his gaze to the weather forecast, Rashid's scowl deepened. There would be a sandstorm today; the wind was rising. Hopefully it would not arrive too soon. Not before Howard's team made it back to here, to this city the Maguanac had been forced to abandon during the war, with the pilots safely in their care. Once they were here - well, then, let the storms come; they would provide valuable cover for the drastic measure that Rashid firmly believed was the only real chance at freedom for them all.
Duo's stomach was twisted in a tight knot, one that had been there since the first day he'd been brought to the courtroom and spotted familiar faces scattered throughout the place. He was half-sick with fear and worry for the Sweepers who had infiltrated the building yet at the same time he was hard pressed to conceal his jubilation that not everyone considered him expendable.
What the Sweepers were planning or where they planned to go afterwards, he couldn't even begin to guess. This wasn't like escaping during the war, when at least the colonies had provided a small degree of safety. Now, they would be hunted everywhere they went. There would be no safe place for them on Earth *or* in space.
Staring coldly across the room, Heero's face remained impassive yet internally, he frowned at the number of vaguely familiar faces that were places that they should *not* be, in guises that were not their own. 'Sweepers. Not just a few - there's at least a dozen that *I* recognize...'
He flicked a casual glance in Duo's direction, wondering how much turmoil his set expression concealed. He knew that Duo would have very mixed feelings about this show of support by his friends. None of them wanted any more deaths on their consciences, especially not the pointless death of friends for a hopeless cause. And Heero could not see how a rescue could be anything *but* hopeless; once the judge declared them guilty, there would be nowhere to run. At least not without starting up another war.
Sensing another faintly familiar presence, Quatre directed a searching gaze over the crowd of bystanders who had managed to arrive early enough to get inside. His eyes widened infinitesimally as he spotted Catherine, her fists clenched and body practically radiating protective fury. Involuntarily, his gaze turned to Trowa, wondering whether his friend had spotted his sister.
'Oh Cathy...' Trowa protested silently. He let his eyes meet hers for an instant, trying to thank her for her support and rebuke her for her presence all at once. There was nothing that she could possibly do here and he wished she hadn't put herself through this. The jeers and insults that had rolled off of him and the others would infuriate her; Trowa hoped desperately that she would not lose her temper in public and get herself in trouble.
Most of Wufei's attention was directed inward, struggling to keep his ever-increasing anger under control. The rage that he'd carried ever since Meiran's useless death had never been completely subdued; every injustice that he encountered added to its strength. Here and now - facing this mockery of justice - keeping the rage leashed, keeping himself from lashing out with words if not with body, was almost more than he could manage.
The instant that the "guilty" verdict left the judge's mouth, Howard gave the signal and the entire building was plunged into darkness. Doors locked and blastshields dropped over the windows as the security system went into automatic lockdown. Howard listened with half an ear as his team inside the building reported in, Sweeper technology easily bypassing the relatively primitive jamming techniques employed by the government. The rest of his attention was focussed on the monitors in front of him as his cloaked ship delicately settled into place on the building's roof.
When the lights went out, the entire building erupted into screaming panic. The panic only grew when people discovered that the doors - both internal ones and the exits - and windows were all tightly sealed. Without even a hint of daylight to penetrate the building and with emergency lighting also failing, the building's interior was pitch black.
In the darkness and confusion, the Sweepers - nightvision goggles in place - easily made their way to the corner of the courtroom that held the pilots and their guards. The pilots were too tightly shackled to get free on their own but it was the work of an instant for their rescuers to shoot the guards with sedative darts from compact blowguns. Elsewhere in the building, other guards were being taken down with darts or gas grenades, whichever was most convenient. The fact that only a few security personnel were carrying flashlights made the job even easier for the rescue team.
Heero held his wrists steady while a "reporter" ran a tiny device she'd pulled from inside her camera over his restraints. It was far too noisy in the room to hear the clunk as the magnet cuffs disengaged and fell to the floor. He accepted the goggles, blowgun, and wrist strap loaded with darts that he was offered by another Sweeper while the woman who'd freed him moved on to release Trowa. He didn't bother asking any questions; this was not the time or the place. Whatever happened now was out of his hands; he would just follow where he was led.
The instant that Quatre was released, Trowa grabbed his elbow and asked urgently, "Can you find Cathy? She'll be implicated just by her presence..."
"I can try. Just - don't let go." Quatre closed his eyes and cautiously reached out with his spaceheart, looking for Cathy's faintly familiar presence. Trowa's grip on his elbow grounded him and kept him from being completely swamped in the sea of fear and panic being broadcast by those in the room. He turned slowly, then opened his eyes and pointed, "There!"
Trowa unceremoniously snagged an extra pair of nightvision goggles from the nearest Sweeper and plunged into the crowd in the direction Quatre had indicated.
"Hey!" the Sweeper protested.
"His sister is here," Quatre explained anxiously to the man.
"Damn. We don't have much time; our window is *very* tight."
"Understood." 'Hurry, Trowa,' Quatre begged silently. 'Please, hurry...'
"Just gimme a sec here, Kid, and we'll be on our way."
As the woman set to work deactivating his cuffs, Duo groaned helplessly, "Oh god, Cyn, you guys shouldn't have *done* this... Not *worth* it, *all* in so much fucking *trouble* now..."
"Shut up," she ordered gruffly as the device worked its magic and the restraints dropped away. "Sweepers don't abandon their own. Not *ever*, Kid. You know that."
A slender, calloused hand slapped over his mouth and Cynthia growled, "No buts, Kid. Only thing I wanna hear out of that big mouth of yours right now is 'Thanks'. Got it?"
Duo blinked rapidly, trying to dispel the burning in his eyes, and wrestled his emotions under control. He couldn't afford the luxury of *feeling* right now; a single mistake could carry far too high a price. "Got it. And Cyn - thanks..." He managed to dredge up a Shinigami grin for her.
"Oh, just *shut up*," she growled again before moving on to release the final pilot.
'Where *is* she...' Trowa scanned the crowd frantically, searching for a glimpse of his sister. They couldn't leave her behind; her mere presence in the midst of all of this would guarantee her implication in the escape.
"Trowa! *Trowa!*" Following the shout, he found Cathy shoving her way through the crowd and towards the front of the courtroom. Towards where she had last seen him. She staggered and nearly went down as the crowd grew increasingly rough in its panic. Trowa caught her before she could hit the floor and be trampled.
"Cathy, we have to hurry." He slipped the spare pair of goggles over her eyes and steered her towards the others. He could just barely see the tall "cameraman" from Channel 6 - a Maguanac, one he'd only seen from a distance, he realized abruptly - who was ushering the others towards the door to the judge's chambers.
"*Trowa*!" Catherine gasped, clutching at him desperately. "What..."
"No time. We have to *go*," he urged, half-dragging her through the pushing, shoving, sea of people. He knew that there would be no second chance; they had to get out *now* and having an extra person along already had the potential to severely mess up the escape plan.
Wufei dropped another security guard with two quick blows, careful to use disabling force rather than killing. There was no honour in killing a man just because he was trying to do his job, not when there were other options.
He watched with respect as the meticulously-planned escape was gradually unveiled. Doors electronically unlocked at their approach; relocked behind them as they moved on. Others joined their group as they rushed through the halls and up the stairs to the roof.
"*Trowa!* I'm not moving another step until you tell me..."
'We don't have *time* for this nonsense...' Wufei turned, took two swift steps back down to the landing and rendered the resisting woman unconscious. Catherine sagged like a ragdoll, held up only by Trowa's grasp on her elbow.
Trowa bent and lifted her over his shoulder. He gave Wufei a grim nod, acknowledging the necessity of the action, then the two of them hurried to close up the gap in the ranks that their delay had created.
The rooftop door opened and the first members of his team emerged. Howard let loose a whoop of sheer relief. They weren't out of the woods yet, not by a longshot, but he'd feel a hell of a lot better once he had all of his people onboard the ship and it was in the air. "Drop the cloak and open the doors! The Kid's comin' home!"
Rashid shielded his eyes against the stinging sand as he nervously paced the perimeter of the huge stone circle. Each menhir sat upright, just as legend said it had for thousands of years. He touched the amulet at his throat, feeling the warmth it was giving off, a warmth that intensified if he moved closer to the circle. Just as the space between the pillars began to glow with a blue light at the amulet's approach.
His predecessor as leader of the Maguanac had passed it on to him when he took over the position, along with the story that went with it. The story of the man and woman found just outside the circle some fifty years earlier, injured and weak. Of the aid given to them and of their departure back through the circle after they were healed, leaving the amulet as a token that would lead any who followed back to the world - the land - that they had come from.
The couple had promised that, in time of great need, the amulet would open the way "for those of Light or of Shadow, though never for those of Dark". They had also warned that machines and guns were not welcome in Escore. "Only bow and blade, horse and camel and ox..."
Rashid cast his gaze over the shelters protecting the supplies that they had collected. Gems and precious metals for trade. Seeds for trade or to plant. Grain and other nonperishable foodstuffs. Swords, spears, knives, and bows. Tools of all descriptions. The livestock - sheep and goats and chickens - the townsfolk had already owned and had taken with them when they fled during the war. Bringing the animals along again now was not a problem. Horses and camels and oxen they had already owned as well, though they had bought more.
'It will be a very big change - for everyone... But I can see no other way...' Rashid still felt very uncertain of how the pilots would react to this plan. His only reassurance was that Howard and the other Sweepers and Maguanacs had discussed, voted, and agreed on it as well. This was the best chance for true freedom - no hiding out or permanently living on the run - for them all without risking starting another war.
"Only minor injuries, boss. Cuts, bruises, a few sprains, a couple of clean breaks. Three minor bullet wounds. And the Kid and his buddies could all use a little more meat on their bones and a few good nights of sleep. But that's about it; we got off pretty damn lightly."
"So far," Howard muttered under his breath. "Thanks, Doc. Make sure everybody's strapped in and anything loose secured."
"Sure thing, Howard," the portly blond responded as he made his way out of the cockpit.
"Boss, the cloak's startin' to go..."
Howard swore viciously at the warning. The ship was never intended to be cloaked and the cloak was never meant for it in the first place. They'd jury-rigged two of the spares for Deathscythe to do the job and it wasn't particularly stable. It was fine for about three or four hours of silent running but it had been up for nearly ten now, with only a few minutes of downtime while they were picking up their passengers from the roof. "Take us below radar!" he snapped sharply. They'd been keeping a higher altitude in order to make better time; flying below radar would force them to slow down substantially in order to avoid low-level hazards.
The lights flickered as the cloaking devices overloaded and died. "Too late, boss!"
"Shit!!" Howard considered options rapidly. Most of the military's mobile suits had already been destroyed but they'd have fighter craft after them in no time. "Get the Kid and Yuy up here and turn over flight control to them; they're the best pilots we've got." He headed towards the tiny captain's quarters, calling as he went, "I'm letting Rashid know there's been a change in plans!" They were going to be coming in fast and hot. Rashid was going to have to start sending people and supplies through the gate *now*.
Cursing the worsening weather conditions, Rashid strode from the communications room back out to the edge of town. Threading his way through the people hurriedly loading up pack animals and carts with supplies, he managed to find Abdul. "You will take the first group through. Send a group of fighters through first to secure the area, then begin taking the families and supplies across. There must be no delays; the ship is less than two hours out and is being pursued. Now *go*!"
Abdul nodded gravely and saluted before leaving to gather his advance team. Rashid sighed and sent up a silent plea for things to go smoothly. They *should* have enough time to get everyone through the gate - *if* nothing went wrong. He took the amulet from around his neck and went in search of his chosen gatekeeper. He could not hold the gate open himself; his place was in the com room, monitoring and coordinating.
"Port engine two is overheating," Heero reported calmly, fingers flicking rapidly over the console. "Attempting to compensate."
"Crap," Duo muttered under his breath, fighting with the control yoke. The ship was running at maximum speed and it was bucking and shuddering constantly. It was never meant to take this kind of punishment in the first place and the cloaking devices had held the ship redlined long before the desperate race began. Right now, he wasn't even wondering where the hell they were going to go once they reached their destination. 'One thing at a time. Just fucking *get* us all there in one piece and let Howie and Rashid worry about the rest...'
"Come on, baby, just a little further," Duo crooned to the labouring ship. Beside him, Heero snorted at his words. Duo ignored him and kept coaxing the ship with voice and hands, begging for every bit of speed and manoeuvrability that the failing craft could give.
"Is there anything we can do?" Quatre asked a mechanic as she returned from replacing another burnt-out fuse.
"Not really," she answered regretfully. "The cloaking devices took out weapons control when they blew; Jensen's working on it but there's not much there to work with. He's pretty much rebuilding the whole damn system with scrap wire and chewing gum. If we can't outrun'em..." She shrugged.
"Thea! Port 2 just blew another one!" came over the speakers.
"Aw, *shit*!" the woman swore. She spun and disappeared back the way she'd came.
Quatre exchanged an uneasy look with Wufei. It was difficult to just sit still and wait; they were used to being in the thick of things. But without a specific job to do, they would only get in the way. So all that they could do was stay where they were told. And wait...
He glanced across at Trowa, who had his angry, frightened sister tucked under his arm and was murmuring to her reassuringly. Catherine had been furious when she'd first regained consciousness but once she'd realized how much trouble she would have probably been in if they'd left her behind, she'd gone from angry to upset. The controlled urgency of the ship's crew and the labouring of the ship itself had turned that upset to fear. 'And with Catherine, fear leads right back to anger again...'
Quatre suspected they were going to have their hands full with her once it really sank in that she could never go back to the circus again. That she was now a wanted fugitive along with the rest of them. He was deeply grateful that none of his own sisters had showed up and suspected that he had the corporate lawyers to thank for their absence. Winner Enterprises was a crucial part of the colonial economy and it needed to be distanced as much as possible from him in order to ensure its safety. The company would be fully in his sisters' capable hands now and he knew that they would do an admirable job. He might have been the official heir but his sisters had been deeply involved in running the company since he was in diapers.
Heero's fingers flew over the controls, constantly rerouting power and adjusting cooling systems. The ship was failing fast and pursuit was closing in; making it to their destination would be a very close-run thing.
Beside him, Duo's arms quivered with effort as he fought to hold the dying ship on course. "Landing's gonna be a real bitch," he warned in a strained voice. "Gonna need some help, I think."
Heero grunted in acknowledgement. "Coordinates approaching, cutting forward propulsion in five, four, three, two, *one*. Decelerating and switching engines to lift mode in five, four, three, two, *one*." He suited actions to words and continued, "Switching power to lift *now*."
"*Fuck!*" The yoke nearly jerked right out of Duo's hands as Heero cut the forward propulsion and switched to the engines to lift. The subsonic whine of the stressed engines abruptly changed pitches and became all too audible. Duo gritted his teeth and hung on. He winced as the engine noise worsened and the ship began to shudder.
"Heero!" His hands and arms were just too damn tired to keep the ship level on his own.
The response to his warning was immediate; the auxiliary yoke slaved to his and Heero threw his own strength into the battle. For a few moments, the ship steadied. But as their altitude decreased and they dropped into the sandstorm, straining engines fought rising wind and sucked in airborne sand. First one engine, then another, failed.
Rashid peered through the swirling sand, desperately hoping to see some sign of movement. According to Howard's last check-in, the ship should be landing very shortly. Despite the howling wind, he heard it before he saw it. And the moment he heard the ship's faltering engines, he knew it was in trouble. It was going to come down *hard*.
"Get back!" he ordered, waving widely. "Back into town! Quickly!" The stretcher-bearers waiting to aid the injured hurried away from the landing field and Rashid followed them hurriedly. He was abruptly very grateful that the ship was landing on the opposite side of town from the stone circle.
Visibility was so poor that Rashid could barely make out the bulk of the descending ship. It had barely even entered his range of view when he realized that he could no longer hear its engines over the wind, despite the fact that it was getting closer rapidly. 'Too rapidly. The engines are dead!' He watched helplessly as the ship dropped far too quickly and without having shed all of its forward motion. In the end, it bellyflopped, bounced, and slid inelegantly across the sand to bury its nose and most of one wing in a dune.
He was running before the ship stopped moving.
Wufei released his flight restraints and reached over to check Quatre's pulse. It was strong and steady, reassuring him that despite his continued unconsciousness, his friend was unlikely to be seriously injured. Across from him, Trowa stirred and bit off a faint moan before checking on Catherine's condition. "Quatre seems fine. How is she?" Wufei asked.
"Just unconscious. I think she passed out when the engines quit," Trowa answered.
Around them, other bodies stirred and voices muttered, gasped, and swore.
"Let's see if we can get a door open," Wufei suggested. He bit back a pained gasp as he stood and his ribs twinged. "I think we had best get everyone clear as quickly as possible."
Howard groaned and grabbed hold of his chair to drag himself painfully to his feet. He'd managed to fling himself into his chair but he hadn't got the belt properly fastened before they crashed. The impact had tossed him to the floor. He blotted a cut over his eye with the edge of his sleeve and peered around the cockpit in the flickering light. "Kid? Yuy?"
A mumbled, "Tired. Gimme 'nother five minutes..." and a grunt answered his call.
Semi-relieved, he remarked, "Well, if you'd brought the car home in one piece, Kid..."
An upraised finger in response relieved the rest of his worry about Duo. He obviously wasn't too seriously injured. Yuy, on the other hand, he'd expected something more professional than a grunt from. "Yuy?" Howard tried a step away from the chair's support and nearly fell. Okay, so he wasn't going anywhere without some assistance. 'Broken ankle, I think...' He sat down in the chair and gingerly raised his pantleg. The skin wasn't broken and there was no noticeable lump, so maybe it was just a fracture or a really bad sprain. 'Still no answer from Yuy... Shit.' "Kid, can you check Yuy?"
"Already on it." The terse reply told him that Duo was equally concerned. "Control yoke got him in the face. Don't think his jaw's broken and he hasn't lost any teeth but he's gonna be pretty sore and swollen for a while. Talking's pretty much out. Some bruising on his neck, too, but he's not havin' too much trouble breathing and his pulse is okay."
"Okay. Think you two can manage to get the three of us out of here? Right ankle won't hold me."
"In a sec. Just gotta let Heero put my damn shoulder back..."
"What?! Let the doc..." Howard gave up his attempt to insist that Duo wait and let the doctor fix his dislocated shoulder as an unmistakable sound and a gasp told him that it was too late.
"Not like it's the first time," Duo muttered defensively as he walked over to Howard and caught his glare. Howard just shook his head in resignation. He winced as Heero joined Duo; the control yoke had really done a number on him. No wonder he hadn't been willing - or maybe even able - to talk.
Howard sighed and held out his hands for the two of them to help him up. "Well, let's go see what the damage is..."
Rashid helped one person after another make the drop from the door of the grounded ship to the sand below. The first stretcher bearers to leave with an injured passenger also carried the message to send horses and wagons back. The ride would be rough but time was of the essence and the crash had raised the number of wounded. None of the injuries were immediately life-threatening though there were several concussions that would bear close watching.
The wind was still very strong but it was no longer rising. Rashid just hoped that it did not begin to drop. If it did, visibility would improve. And if it improved enough, their pursuers would not be long in taking advantage of that.
"Cathy, you have a choice to make. You either stay here and take your chances with the World Nation or you come with us. If you come, it's a one-way trip. If you don't..." Trowa shook his head sadly. "I don't like the odds. I think it is very likely that you will be tried as an accomplice in our escape. The mere fact that you were at the trial will be enough for them."
He watched Cathy's tearstained face as she swallowed hard and struggled to decide. He hoped that she would come with them; she was his sister, regardless of the fact that they had never had their belief scientifically confirmed. If she stayed behind, he would miss her greatly. And he would mourn her, for he truly believed that she would be in grave danger. But he would not stay behind because of her.
Unbelievable though Rashid's story was, Trowa had only to look a few feet away to see the proof. One person after another walked up to the blue-lit circle, stepped across its perimeter, and - vanished. Leaving would at least give them a chance at freedom. And he knew that if he stayed behind, Quatre would stay as well. That alone was reason enough for him to go.
"Trowa?" Trowa waved in acknowledgement of Quatre's call.
"Decision time, sis." Leaning forward, he kissed her forehead. "I'm going now." With that, he turned and walked away.
Quatre waited anxiously for Trowa to join him. He was worried both for Trowa and for his sister. The two of them, despite how short a time they had actually spent together, were far closer than he and any of his own sisters. In response to the aching sadness he could sense from Trowa, Quatre impulsively held out his hand in reminder that Trowa was not alone. He smiled in soft reassurance as Trowa took his outstretched hand and the two of them turned towards the gate. Together, they stepped through it.
Duo watched as Catherine took several hesitant steps towards the circle. She stopped and he debated going to her. It would be difficult to take that step between worlds alone. 'But I want to cross with Heero...' he protested silently. A small part of him feared that if they did not pass through together, they might somehow be separated. Forever. He couldn't take that chance.
No sooner had he reached that decision than he spotted Wufei studying the young woman. He saw Wufei's shoulders heave in a sigh, then the other pilot straightened his spine and strode over to Catherine. Duo grinned. She would be going with them. She might cross the circle draped unconscious over Wufei's shoulder - but she was going.
Heero watched as Wufei and Catherine approached the gate. A few steps away, Catherine faltered. Wufei just grabbed her elbow and hauled her along. In an instant, they were gone.
"Our turn, huh, Heero?"
Unwilling to set his head throbbing any worse than it already was by nodding, Heero merely started walking in response. Duo took two quick strides to catch up to him and they walked towards the unknown together. At the last possible moment, strong, slender fingers twined themselves through Heero's. He heard Duo murmur apologetically, "For luck..." and then the world twisted and dropped away beneath them.
Two horses stood patiently beside the stone circle. Rashid once again had the amulet around his own neck. "We're the last," he sighed. "And none too soon, the sandstorm is dying down."
"Won't *this* be a fine puzzle for the good Lady Une," Howard chuckled. He shifted cautiously in the saddle, already feeling distinctly uncomfortable. "All of us, vanished into thin air."
"She will be watching her back for years," Rashid agreed. "Which is all to the good, I think. It just might keep her honest!"
"It might at that. Might keep them *all* honest, never knowin' if a wrong move will suddenly bring us all back to haunt them." Howard shook his head and grinned broadly. He had repeatedly refused to leave until last, wanting all of his people safely away before following. Of course, with his bad ankle that meant that he was having to actually ride a *horse* for the first time in his life but at least Rashid was going to be leading it.
"Let's get this over with," Howard said, gesturing towards the circle, "before all this talk of the devil has her showin' up to spoil our clean escape."
"A most excellent suggestion."
A moment later, all that remained were a few rapidly vanishing tracks in the sand, a fading hint of blue in the stone circle, an abandoned town, and a crippled ship counting down to self-destruction.
Author's Note/Additional Disclaimer: Escore and Witch World in general aren't mine. They belong to Andre Norton.