Deciding that the call must be important, I picked up as soon as I got my wits back together. Quatre spoke to me almost before I finished saying 'hello.' "It's going to be today."
I spent a heartbeat's time processing the calm declaration before snapping back into business mode. "Location?"
"Unknown. Time unknown. We estimate early evening. After most people have gone home for the day."
It seemed out of character for our terrorists to be interested in killing civil servants, so suddenly our window had been narrowed to the next six or seven hours. I didn't know what kind of magic the team had worked to find this information out, but I trusted it. "Timed explosive?"
"Yes. Our teams are on the lookout now."
The longer the delay between planting the explosive and detonating it, the more unreliable things got, but bomb-planting was a crime of opportunity. It might be ideal for a timed explosive device to be set later in the day to minimize the risk of a random factor stumbling into their plan, but maybe things hadn't worked out that way. We couldn't assume anything at this point. "Evacuations?"
"Orderly. Drills, time off for good behavior, the usual."
"Almost anywhere." Of the government buildings, it was implied. "With that silly transparency notion of theirs, the government decided that visitors and tourists should be allowed onto the grounds of damn near any administrative building in the city."
It figured. The terrorists didn't even have to do anything. If they waited long enough, this government would collapse under its own weight all by itself. "Orders?"
"Find it." He didn't say anything else before hanging up on me. He didn't need to. I had my marching orders, and no doubt he had already started his march.
I checked the project file for updates, but there weren't any. I hadn't expected any. None of us was so diligent about our paperwork that we would have stopped in the middle of this crisis to fill some out. I didn't have much new data to go on, then. I looked out the window. The place had a pretty decent view of the city. I could already see that traffic was being diverted from some areas. The others weren't so dependent on me that informing me of the new time frame would have been on the top of their minds, either. Clearly, it was time to leave my safe haven and take more direct action.
Quatre's flat was pretty well stocked, but not with a car. Luckily, a lot of the public transportation routes led to the political center of the city. I spent my time on a bus reviewing the relevant data before I was dropped off a few streets away from my ultimate target. Foot traffic hadn't been halted yet. With so many officers and agents on the street, I took care not to attract anyone's attention as I stealthed my way inside their perimeter and to the place I had predicted would contain the mobile command unit. Finding it successfully, I got past a police officer and an agent on the strength of my regulation half-uniform alone, though it had probably helped that I looked like I belonged there. Once inside the command center, I figured I could hit anybody that protested to my presence before I could convince them to let me do my job.
I didn't have to. None of the others were there, but I had expected them to be out in the field, where they preferred to be. The man and the woman that looked like they were in charge barely looked up at me from their printouts as I strode past them and planted myself at one of the terminals. "Tech Support," I announced quietly.
They took me at my word and let me be. Other agents from my department would probably be showing up later to help coordinate the search, but they didn't worry me. I quickly took up a headset and attached it to my ear while looking over the setup. Finding the information that I needed, I tapped into Quatre's channel. "Yellow One. I'm in position at the CC."
"Acknowledged. Get to work."
I got to work. With up to the minute information and access to security reports, there had to be something that I could do to help narrow down the search. After a brief survey, I settled on the surveillance vids. Since the threat went orange, round-the-clock cameras had been glued to the major access points to popular government spots. I started scanning them for faces that showed up repeatedly. Such an examination was notoriously unreliable, but it seemed like the best chance we had. Maybe Zero and I could find something that others could not.
During the process of recoding the comparison parameters for an acceptable range of false positives, two people sat down at the other terminals, one right beside me. "Yuy," someone hissed. Trix. "What are you doing here?"
"Working," I answered, not stopping. A hierarchical search was narrowing the field pretty well.
"I thought you were, uh, 'telecommuting'."
"And now I'm not. Cut the chatter and get to work, Agent."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Super Secret Special Agent, sir," she muttered as she donned her headset. It wasn't long before she was sucked into the coordination effort, leaving me in peace.
Relative peace. The lines were alive with check-ins and updates as city employees were shuffled out of the way and their buildings cleared. Manpower was spread thin. Government locations were set all over the city, and a perimeter had to be maintained around each, preferably without panicking the people. Tension mounted as the hours crumbled into the past, but I felt strongly that we wouldn't find the bomb or the bombers on good chance alone.
I had acquired a suspect pool to work with from my image processing. Between other tasks, I made Trix help me run names and faces through the databases. She complained, asking me why I enjoyed field work, but she did as she was asked. Incorporating the news I heard over the line, I slowly whittled away at the list until we came down to a half-dozen possibilities. Good enough. I passed the information along to Quatre to distribute as he saw fit.
Twenty minutes later, and the cars of one of the suspects had been IDed at one of the sites the search parties hadn't gotten to yet. It was still quiet in that part of the city, and Barton, closest to the site, made sure it stayed that way. Finding the suspect was no good if we didn't also find his bomb. I kept working at the problem in case he wasn't it, listening in as security at the Hall of Records scoured the building for the man. They found him taking pictures of a statue in one of the gardens. He claimed innocence, but a dog was brought in, sniffed him, and found him guilty. The dog's nose followed the scent of explosive residue back to the rear of another statue, and they found what they were looking for.
Quatre contacted me over the line. "They got it."
"Have they disarmed it?"
"Not yet. But they're working on it. They don't foresee any difficulties. Good job."
Amidst the celebratory shouts I could hear in the command center and outside, something seemed off. Maybe it was just anti-climatic, a feeling I thought I'd gotten used to years ago. Did I just miss being more actively involved in the search? Was I just waiting for the bomb to be disarmed and removed, the city put back to rights? Maybe it was that my situation hadn't changed yet. Hopefully we could get things cleared up and I could be home soon. Well, not hiding out, anyway. It would probably take a little bit more time before home felt like home again.
With a flash of Zero-induced intuition, I knew what it was that was really bothering me. I pressed the button to open the channel to Quatre again. "It's not the only one."
Beside me, my quietly uttered words caught Trix's attention and she let what she had been saying to me fade away. A few seconds passed before Quatre answered. "Are you sure?"
"Well..." Zero prodded me in the right direction. "It seems likely."
"I'd agree. Let's be on the safe side, anyway. Winner out."
I heard his voice re-issuing commands, staying calm and reasonable as he ordered caution and a continuation of the search. There were still a few suspects on the list that I had passed off to him, but by now, most of the people in the area had been emptied out. Quite a few of them were still corralled somewhere else for processing, someone checking out their credentials before freeing them to go. But I had the feeling that the other bombs had already been planted.
"Well, pooh," Trix said, dragging her headset back on. "And I here I was all ready to play, too."
I glanced over to her, going over what she had been saying to me while I had been distracted. Then I glanced down and saw the paper she had set down on the counter between us. "That your MinFa info?"
"Yep." She smoothed out one of the wrinkles in the paper. "I wanted to see what that whole thing was all about, too."
She'd gotten her creds in before the deadline and was registered for the games. The time for the event had been distributed that morning, but I hadn't yet checked before getting distracted. "Soon, isn't it?" I murmured to myself, logging into the mail account I had provided with my registration. I opened the message I had gotten that morning. "Same time. Different server."
"Yeah, don't want to overload ourselves, you know."
No, they'd probably be using the flood of participants to overload someone else. But its timing was very suspect. I could see a grand pattern of bombs in the city and on the network simultaneously. It would paralyze everything. I picked up my comm again and called Quatre. "Order the government systems to shut down and disconnect from the network."
He was quick to catch on, as usual. "Another timed attack?"
"Yes." I had an idea and started pulling what DNS information I could get my hands on from the mobile command center. "I suspect the enemy of organizing amateur hackers into a raiding party. Target unknown."
"I'll take care of it."
"You have things covered here?"
"Yes. Do what you have to."
I pulled the headset off and turned to Trix. "I need to borrow your car."
She stared at the hand I held out expectantly. "What?"
"I need to go somewhere." In a hurry. Public transportation wasn't going to cut it this time, and I'd noticed the bulge of her keys in her pockets earlier. It wasn't uncommon for the command center to move out as soon as possible, and for the support crew to get there when they could.
"No way! You know I don't let other people touch my Daisy!"
I'd thought maybe she had taken a company car here, but it probably would have taken too long to get one requisitioned. I Looked at her steadily. "Worldwide security? Or Daisy? Which is it going to be, Trix?"
She stood up. "I'm driving."
"You're staying here."
"Screw you, Heero." She started heading out the door, leaving me to follow. "Dave and that other guy's got it covered. I'm not letting you run off by yourself."
I didn't want to waste the time trying to stop her, so I let her take the lead all the way to her car. Once we got there, I held out my hand again. "I'm driving. You can sit in the passenger seat."
She glared at me ineffectively. "It's my car."
"I may need to break a few traffic laws. I'm driving."
She looked doubtfully at me, but agreed anyway. But not without unlocking the passenger side first and climbing in before handing me the keys to make sure I wouldn't speed away without her. Not a bad move, really. As I worked my way daringly out of the snarl that was police and Preventers activity, she pouted. "If you hurt her, I'll hurt you."
"Trust me, Trix. I have deeply personal reasons for not waiting to harm your Daisy. You couldn't have chosen a better name for your car."
::Ah, yes, there is that.::
I smirked internally. ::No, I know Duo can take whatever I have to dish out.:: Unless it was news that I had a computer living inside my head.
"You're weird, Yuy."
"I know." Funny how that answer occurred to me before I thought to point out that she was the one that had named her car.
In the end, I only sped a bit and snuck in at the very tail end of some yellow lights on my way to the ZenNet building.
Trix looked at the almost solid wall of the building dubiously. "Are you sure this is where we need to be?"
"Yes." Reasonably sure, anyway. ZenNet was the major network carrier for the city. Any signal coming in would inevitably be routed through these switches on the way to their final destinations.
I pushed the button for the child-safety locks on the doors of her car, then exited to determine the best point of entry. It took her a few seconds to realize what I had done before I heard her muffled curses. The building housed all of the local routers for this sector of the ZenNet network service. There would be a lot of hardware packed into the seven stories. Ventilation would be pretty hefty. Service engineers only needed to come here to investigate a problem, perform routine maintenance, or install systems upgrades. It was unlikely that anyone would be working here at this time to let us in. The building didn't have a front door, anyway. There was only a gated underground parking garage. Their business hinged on this place running without interruption; it wasn't meant to be inviting.
Trix showed up next to me, glaring for all she was worth. She must have climbed over the center console and gotten out via the driver's side. I'd hoped to be gone before she could figure it out, but I hadn't yet determined a destination. I didn't have the means to get up to the roof at this time, and it would take far too long to slink in through the ventilation system anyway. Windows were scarce, and thin slits in the wall when they were present. There was no chance of winning our way through the thick gate of the parking garage. I jogged around the side of the building, found an alley with some dumpsters. There was a gate in front of the alley, but nothing that couldn't be climbed over.
I got to the other side with ease, leaving Trix sputtering and trying to use the short wall next to the gate for leverage to get over while I inspected the length of the alley. Almost hidden behind the dumpsters was a door. Locked, of course. Where was a set of lockpicks when you needed them?
Trix may have worked Tech Support, but she had completed basic training, too. Thought it'd been kind of cool at the time. She joined me while I was staring at the door and punched me on the arm. "You're a bitch, Heero, you know that?"
"Yeah." I'd been getting that a lot lately.
She opened her mouth to complain more, but I hushed her when I heard the cranking of gears. The gate to the parking garage? I trotted quickly to the mouth of the alley and peered carefully through the grate of the fence. A car waited for the gate to open completely, but the men inside the car didn't looking like building engineers. I waited for it to pull inside before I cupped my hands and motioned with my head for Trix to get back over the fence. I wasn't enough of an asshole to leave her trapped on this side. There wasn't a conveniently short retaining wall next to it to help her out. She hesitated for a second, but my look must have been enough to drive her over the fence. She gasped when I gave her a boost, but she got over.
I pulled myself up and over as soon as she was clear, and ran low for the gate, keeping close to the wall out of habit. To her credit, she followed my example, and stayed right behind me as I slipped into the parking garage as the gate was closing. I immediately pulled her into the shadows, still hearing the sound of a car's engine as it pulled into a dimly lit parking space. "You should have stayed on the other side," I murmured to her.
She clutched at my arm. "Well, too late now, isn't it?" she hissed quietly. "Why are we being all super secret agent?"
"Those men don't work here, Trix. Something's not right."
There was enough discretion in her to fall silent as the engine was turned off. Two car doors opened. Two men exited the vehicle, walked over to the island of light that denoted the entrance to the building, and went inside. The door had been unlocked. Good. I turned to my companion. "I'm going in. You can stay here if you want."
"Are you insane?"
"It might be dangerous."
"And you want me to wait in this freaky place? I'm gonna bet that the best place to be is right next to you."
She was probably right. Best place for her, maybe, but I wasn't sure I wanted someone to look out for. I counted the cars in the small garage. Four. Anywhere from five to fourteen people inside. If more people came, it would be harder to hide in this place. Zero thought the odds were good that she could at least stay out of the way, and maybe even help out. If I had to deal with bad guys, it could be handy having a set of hands free to do what we had actually come here to do. "Fine. Be smart, stay low, stay quiet, and do as you're told, okay?"
"I went through basic, you know."
But she also looked nervous. Basic was a far cry from an actual field op. Well, nothing to be done about it now. Hopefully her confidence would hold and get her through this. I nodded, and headed for the door, wishing that Tech Support agents would bring their sidearms out in the field once in a while. A gun in my hand, even if it was borrowed, would make me feel better about the situation. Before I opened the door, I remembered to tell her to turn off her cell phone, just in case, and then we snuck in.
The men that had come in before us were nowhere in sight as we followed the hall to the stairs up to the ground level. I wasn't sure what to expect based on what I could guess of the building's layout. There hadn't been any windows to give the floor plan away. They would need space for the servers. They'd probably be open layout. A few storage spaces. A bathroom, maybe a small room to accommodate humans that had to work here for a while. Somewhere to sit down, plan, spread out materials. That was probably where the people would be gathered. Seven stories, though. There would be more than one of those places. Top floor for view? Bottom floor for access? Difficult to say. And as to where we could access and disable the set of servers we needed to? I missed the days of using a little bit of C4 to get the job done.
Once we got out to the main floor, we found ourselves confronted by a conference table. Some bags were set down on its surface. Beyond this pseudo-lobby area, there were several open doorways leading into rooms filled with servers attending to their business with a merry hum. On the wall next to where we came out was an emergency exit map. It wasn't detailed, but judging from it and the supports we could see on this floor, Zero and I came up with a general idea of the building's floor plan.
I searched the bags on the table quickly. I found something I thought may have been used to carry an explosive device. There were maps printed out from a computer, but they covered enough ground that it was difficult to narrow down the field of possible alternative locations for the other bombs. More importantly to me at the moment, I found a handgun. It was small, but it was loaded. I borrowed it, knowing that if this one person had been carrying a weapon, it was possible for the others to be carrying as well.
I pulled Trix into one of the server rooms. Banks and banks of computers connected with thick, neat bundles of cables filled the place. We couldn't just disable things haphazardly. City forces were also using part of this network, and they needed to stay up and running so long as the other threats to the government buildings had not yet been found and neutralized. I sent Trix down the row to follow the cables to their source while I studied the configuration of the systems in front of me. Wiggling one box out of its slot, I dusted off the top and examined the fine print on top of the case. It told me what address ranges it managed. Sliding it back to work out the next box, I found the next set of ranges, and to check the pattern, I looked at a third, and then a fourth farther down the line.
::Fifth floor,:: Zero calculated before I could. The intervals weren't perfectly regular -- I guessed that some parts of the network needed more computing power to handle the load -- but it was good enough.
I headed out to where Trix had disappeared to, and met her on the way back. She jerked her head wordlessly back the way she came and I followed, finding a terminal in the back corner of the room. I was just about to give it a better look when I thought I heard something. "Poke around," I whispered to Trix, gesturing at the monitor. I headed toward the door of the server room without giving her time to question me.
It was difficult to hear anything over the monotonous hum of all the hardware, but I stayed well back from the entrance and closed my eyes. Zero helped to filter out the background noise, and I identified a pair of footsteps. Heavyset male, from the sound of it. Someone rustling through the bags on the table. I prepared myself in case he noticed the missing gun, but apparently that wasn't what he had been looking for.
Two more sets of footsteps entered the room from the stairs out of the parking garage. "Andre," the man already in the room said. "Everything set?"
"Let's go meet with the others."
The three of them headed up the stairs to the level above. I waited around a little to be sure, holding a silent conversation with Zero, then went back to Trix. I gestured to her that three men had just entered the building and had proceeded upstairs. She stared blankly at me, reminding me that she wasn't one of us. I repeated my message verbally for her.
"What?" she hissed. "What are all these people doing here?"
"This must be their temporary base of operations." Servers had built-in protections these days against massive data attacks, though most of them weren't foolproof. They could be overridden or worked around from the hacker's end with a little work, but it could also be done if they had someone on the inside to let the attacks through. It was simple enough to imagine one of the building engineers having nationalist loyalties. This was a coordinated attack on the city; he could also contribute by providing somewhere discreet for the radicals to meet.
"What?!" she hissed more loudly.
I dismissed her demand with a shake of my head and gestured at the terminal. "Anything?"
She muttered something under her breath, too low for me to hear without paying attention, then flipped through a couple of submenus. "Better map. But I can't actually do anything with this thing."
I studied the map critically, updating the guesswork in my head. There was a breakroom on every other floor. Electrical room on the third floor. Central control room on the second floor. I guessed that that was where the men were primarily gathering. I charted a route to the fifth floor, outlined it for Trix, then got moving.
There were two staircases on either side of the building. I chose the one that the other men had not taken, the one farther from the control room. This was not their primary base of operations, nor was it a high security facility, nor presumably was it a place where they expected intruders, so we could be fairly certain that there were no cameras in the stairwells, no outlandish booby-traps lurking around the corners. Still, I took the stairs lightly and quickly with my usual professionalism, stopping on each landing to reassess the situation and wait for Trix to catch up. She wasn't a complete novice, but she was far from a special ops field agent. I would have left her behind, if I didn't think that would be more dangerous.
We reached the fifth floor with little difficulty and started walking down the rows, looking for the right set of boxes. She searched the banks on one side, and I the other, but after inspecting three of them, I paused, gave the setup a closer look, and swore.
Trix looked warily at me. "What?"
I gestured at the bulky lines of cables running down the rows. "These machines have been upgraded."
I pulled one of the servers out of its compartment and confirmed the interweave of its wires. "Cascading redundancy."
"What, you mean if we unplug one, the others are going to kick in as backup?"
"Aa." I shoved the machine back into its place with an ill-disguised annoyance. I remembered when they had installed the new equipment. Service on the network had been slow for a week. Duo had taken the opportunity to declare, 'less network, more nookie.'
"Huh. Well, we can just unplug them all," Trix suggested brightly.
"No. Our forces are also using this network, and until I'm told otherwise, I'm going to assume that there's still an emergency going on in the city."
"How would you find out any different? You don't have a phone on you, and no one's going to call me."
"Then we'd best assume there's still an emergency." Besides, there were still men in this building. They would be keeping a close eye on the proceedings. If something had happened, they would have reacted somehow. "Come on."
She blinked at me for a moment before following. "Where to?"
"Where the hell is that?"
"Third floor south."
"What the hell direction is south?"
Ah. It'd been a long time since I had worked with someone that didn't have a sophisticated sense of spatial orientation. "We took the south stairs to get up here."
"Oh. I thought we couldn't disable everything."
"We can't." I stopped, thought over the plan that Zero and I had come up with, and decided the right thing to do would be to give her another choice.
::You're wasting time.::
::It'll be more of a waste if she weighs us down.::
Zero didn't know why I didn't just whack her over the head and leave her in a safe corner somewhere, but didn't say so in so many words.
"Trix. We need to get into the control room." I paused for an outburst, but she bit her lip before she could say anything. Good. "Yes, where all the men are. We should be able to get the level of control that we need from the central computer. My plan is to see what electrical systems we can mess with from the electrical room. That should draw some of them out to investigate, which will leave us with a smaller number of people to deal with. It will probably be dangerous. I can do this by myself."
She hesitated. She wanted to take what I was offering. She would be smart to take what I was offering. But in the end, she shook her head. "Nuh-uh, no way. I'm not going to be responsible for telling your snugglebunny that I let you run off into a dangerous situation all by yourself."
"My snugglebunny knows that I have the bad habit of running off into dangerous situations all by myself." Dammit, why did I keep following her lead, every time she said 'snugglebunny'? I clamped down on that thread of doubt whispering to me that he wasn't my snugglebunny anymore and reassured both her and myself. "It'll be fine." I took further steps when she looked like she was teetering on a threshold of decision. "I won't think any less of you. You're not trained for this."
She threw up her hands. "Oh, what the hell. Am I a Preventer, or aren't I? I'm in."
"You're tech support."
She stuck her tongue out at me. "And you keep saying that the techies are agents, too. And you're tech support, too."
There was no denying that. "I'm different."
There was also no denying that. "I'm in, Heero. If someone holds me hostage, go ahead and shoot, okay?"
Zero concurred, but being outnumbered two to one had never worried me before. "You're only saying that because you know I'm a good shot."
I shook my head, then asked her one more time for good measure. I needed her committed to this course of action, or else she would become a liability. She wouldn't have the chance to change her mind later. "You're sure?"
She nodded firmly, and off we went.
The trip down to the third floor went off without a hitch. We infiltrated the electrical room, and I took a look at all of the switchboxes on the walls. In a place like this, they were clearly labeled. Zero spun out the possibilities of each one, and we decided to go with the lights. There were signs of a backup generator, but it would run the lighting in emergency mode. The men in the control room would still come out to investigate, and we would still be able to see.
We flipped the switch on the lights. They went out with a sudden lack of background buzz, and one and a half seconds later, the backup kicked in, bringing us back to twenty percent lighting. "Let's go," I said, signaling her to move out with a universal hand signal that even she understood.
We went to wait in the server room closest to the entrance to the north staircase. Five minutes passed and nothing happened. "Come on, you idiots," I couldn't help muttering as Trix grew more and more antsy. "Everyone knows that there's someone in their base, messing with their systems, when the lights go out."
"Who's been watching too many movies now?" Trix scoffed softly. "Maybe they just think someone leaned on the light switch or something."
"Then they would have tried to turn them back on with the light switch and noticed that it didn't work." Was I overlooking the obvious? Maybe they had outflanked us? No, they couldn't get in behind our position, and the building wasn't so wide that we wouldn't know if they decided to come up the other set of stairs...
Trix rocked nervously on her heels. "Maybe they just don't know where the electrical room is. Or that there even is one."
Ridiculous. Who took over a building and used it as their headquarters without knowing where all the important... Oh. Right. Not dealing with professionals here. Not in the art of defense, anyway. But that didn't mean we could waltz into the middle of their marshaled forces and gain control of the central room without luring some of them out first. Unless I assumed that some of them had already left, there were at least nine men in the building that needed to be dealt with. And that was assuming that no more had joined the party.
Zero and I were revising our calculations when the door to the staircase finally opened. The two slackers strolled in casually, making crude jokes about how someone back in the control room was worrying over nothing, and how that related to the large, unsightly wet spots showing through on the underarm of the man's shirt, with a corollary to wet spots on other parts of a person's clothing. I shook my head, signaled Trix to stay where she was even though she probably could have taken these delinquents out herself, and crept up behind them.
The man on the right fell behind a step, and I jabbed him in the kidneys to open the scuffle, following it with a hard knock on the back of his head with the handgun I had borrowed from the bag downstairs. Taking advantage of the other man's shock, I used the extra time to catch the first man before he fell to the floor with a loud thump, letting him down gradually while kicking his companion. The man doubled over, and I repeated the procedure with him. If any suspicious noises made it through to the floor below, hopefully they could assume that these goofballs had just been horsing around.
When it was over, Trix emerged with the fistful of cable ties and the roll of electrical tape we had found in a cabinet. "Wow, I've gotta take more of those hand to hand classes."
"That's only two of them," I noted as we bound the men up and pulled them into a side room. "We can't afford to wait for any more of them to wise up to the situation and get their butts out of that room."
"Well, we can't just go storming in there."
"No. We need to let them know we're here."
"Then they'll find us!"
"Not all at once." I grabbed the chin of the man I'd hit less hard and slapped him a bit until I got a groggy awareness out of him. "You. How many men are in this building?"
I slapped him again, ignoring the way Trix had covered her mouth with her hand. I didn't know if that was to keep a gasp in, or to keep from giggling. "How many men are in this building?"
"What? Shit, who the hell are you guys?" His eyes darted to Trix, whose uniform was in better shape than mine. "Oh fuck, Preventers? Shit, I'm not telling you anything!"
He opened his mouth to scream, so I planted the tip of my gun in his crotch. That shut him up rather quickly. "How many men are in this building?"
"Oh shit oh shit oh shit--"
I hit him again with my free hand. "Don't make me ask you again."
"Oh shit oh-- uh. Fuck, you wouldn't do that to me, would you? Man to man, here!" I flicked the safety on the gun noisily, making him think that I had pulled the hammer back or something, and the prayers started up again. After a pointed look, he shut up and finally decided to cooperate. "Um, I don't know, man! I didn't count!"
"Give me your best guess, then." I smiled for him, which I was told could be somewhat unnerving.
"Uh. I don't know, like, uh, twenty-something?"
My expression darkened, causing him to plead for mercy again, but it wasn't that I didn't think he had answered the question well enough. That was a lot more than I had thought. Either the first cars had been packed to capacity, or more people were arriving. We had the city under watch. This was a pretty good place for the terrorists to gather and wait for the heat to die down, and to watch the show while they were at it. "Are they armed?"
"Armed? You mean like guns? Some of them, yeah."
Great. Hopefully that just meant I'd have more opportunities to trade my gun in when I emptied this one. I knocked the guy out again and stood. "We need to move fast. This may take a while to deal with."
She finally uncovered her mouth and stared at me with wide eyes. "People really do that?"
I blinked at her, emerging for a moment from the haze of potentials buzzing through my head. "Do what?"
"Threaten to shoot off a guy's balls?"
"It's effective, isn't it?" Even when it was just a bluff. It was easy to tell who would fall for it. As if I would fire a weapon in here and give away my position. I shrugged, then got back to business. "The control room is too defensible. Alerting them to our presence will get more of them out of that room. The more spread out they are, the easier it will be to deal with them. Once there are few enough people within, we can approach the control room itself and do what we need to do."
She stared at me as if she didn't do this sort of thing every day. "How do you expect to get them out of the control room? Keep flashing the lights?"
Good question. They didn't seem to be the brightest bunch when it came to an intruder in their midst. What would we have to do, knock on their door and invite them to play?
Hm. That didn't seem to be a bad idea, actually. "Here's the plan. I'm going to walk into the room, let some of them see me, and then get the hell out of there. They'll follow, we'll circle around, get into the control room, take out the men inside, and then hold the position. I can keep them out while you take care of business with the computer."
She didn't look like she understood the plan. I was about to go over it again with her when she cut me off. "That's your idea of a plan?!"
I flashbacked to several instances of Duo saying the exact same thing to me. "Hey, at least I have a plan," I mouthed soundlessly, my usual answer. But now wasn't the time for this. I shook my head impatiently to clear out the random thoughts. "If you don't like it, then find a corner to hide in until this is all over."
She bristled. "Hey, I said I was in. Just... Just stand between me and the guns, and I'll be just fine."
I looked intently at her. "Are you sure?" It was a risk taking her with me, but it was a risk leaving her behind, too. Zero ran the odds for me again. The differences didn't amount to much, but I'd prefer the future I had control over, given the choice.
"You said you need me to take care of the computer."
"I can do it myself if I have to." I'd done it before. It was just easier with more tools at one's disposal, in a base built for defense, without a time limit ticking away. Already I was thinking ahead. The door to the room would probably be just a door. Bullets could pierce it easily, so I wouldn't be able to simply barricade it. Much would depend on where access to the computers we needed was.
After a few seconds, Trix huffed irritably. "I'm going with you."
I always did admire her gumption. Even if I did, at times, think that maybe it was just because she reminded me of Duo. Maybe she'd been his surrogate while I was away. Maybe I was just drawn to that kind of person. "Your next coffee is on me."
"My coffee for the rest of the damn year is on you. Now let's go before I change my mind."
::Give me strength,:: I thought as we set off, not out of need so much as superstition. Better safe than sorry.
::We shall keep her safe,:: he answered with no particular concern. Together, we could accomplish our goals. He didn't generally care what those goals were.
There were stairs on both sides of the building. The control room was right in the middle. I had Trix wait back in the stairwell of our 'escape route' while I executed my admittedly straightforward plan. An advantage of the plan was that I could see the numbers for myself. I walked toward the door and counted twenty-four men before someone spotted me. He shouted at me. A few of his companions also turned. One of them spotted my colors and the jacket I'd borrowed from Trix and shouted, "Shit, Preventers!" And then the chase was on, and I had just enough time to think to myself that Duo had better never find out about this plan before I wiped all extraneous thought away and focused on getting the job done.
I ran for the stairs with the first man hot on my heels. If there was anyone behind him with a gun, he was conveniently keeping me out of the line of fire. Before I got to the exit, I heard Trix doing as she was told, clambering up the stairs with her heavy barely-regulation army boots. I leapt up the stairs after her, turning as I reached the first landing to wait for the first man in pursuit. He caught up in a couple of seconds, but I easily dodged his lunge, turned his momentum against him, and threw him down the stairs. Another man stumbled over his body, and then a second got stuck in the jam-up. I caught sight of the gun the third man was carrying, and decided that now would be an ideal time to continue my upwards journey.
By pre-arrangement, Trix halted on the fifth floor. I signaled her to move safely to one side, and then I laid in wait for our guests. I caught them as they came through the door. Four of them now. The first was laid out by virtue of surprise. The second man had the gun. I caught his hand, twisted, and took custody of the weapon. The third was dispatched with a couple of quick kicks. The last man of the group was also armed with a weapon. He pulled the trigger, but telegraphed it clearly enough for me to dodge the first and then the second bullet. By that time, I had closed the distance between us and laid him low with a hard punch in the gut and an elbow to the face. I took possession of his weapon as well, and then headed for the stairs on the other side of the room.
"Holy mother of mercy," Trix gasped at me as she ran alongside me. "Knowing you're some sort of action hero and seeing it are two entirely different things."
I just handed her a gun and said nothing, far too caught up in the timing of our little cat and mouse game. She took the weapon reluctantly, but I'd spent enough time with her to know that she was a decent shot. If she got too nervous to actually do it, then she could at least hold on to the weapon for me until I needed it.
As we were leaving the fifth floor, another man emerged from the stairwell. I put a bullet in his leg and left him behind. The sound of footsteps filled the echoing space of the stairwell.
::At least four, possibly as many as eight.:: We couldn't go up and get trapped at the top of the building, so down we went to meet them. Footsteps above our position told us that someone had taken the high road. I made note of them as we went down, accompanied by the shouts of our enemies attempting to coordinate something. They were also wondering how many of us there were. Good. That part of the plan was going well, between the amount of noise we had made in the stairwell and the doors on the third and fourth floors that I'd thrown open. They'd waste manpower searching the rooms in between.
Someone fired a shot that had no chance of hitting us, so I didn't worry as Trix flinched violently. She didn't have the benefits that I had in being able to calculate the bullet's source and trajectory. As we closed in on the group below us, I fired a couple of shots down at them to cover us. Zero fed me an angle, and I aimed as directed, smirking mentally as the bullet ricocheted off metal and came close to causing bodily harm. Anxious shrieks rose. ::Show off.::
Zero assured me he would do it again if the opportunity arose. My rather affectionate chastisement did not deter him in the slightest.
We reached our rendezvous with the men, with Trix again hanging back at a 'safe' distance. I identified the man with the gun and took him out first, sliding in behind him to take control of his right arm and keep his weapon pointed at the others while I disabled him. I pitched him over the rails, then ducked past the men while they were distracted by the scream of their comrade to take out the guy that looked the most confident. I broke his arm, and the loud sound of it brought back the attention of the others. I used the gun I wasn't interested in firing yet and gave him a smart tap on the back of the head.
A bullet was fired from above me. ::Close range. Trix,:: Zero identified for me. I took a moment for a glance upwards to confirm, and saw Trix pointing her weapon toward the man descending from above. Good for her. Her elbow was a bit locked, but I'd forgive her, given the circumstances. She didn't actually have to hit anything, just keep them at bay for a little while.
The next man I faced went down with his nose pushed back into his face, and the last man went running down the stairs. I jumped after him, using gravity and the railing to kick him off balance. His head hit the wall and he fell. "Come on," I barked at her. She joined me gladly, and we didn't run into any more people before coming out on the second floor. One man was waiting outside the control room. He shouted a warning at his companions inside, then rushed us. Moments later, a second man came out to support him with a gun. I grabbed the first guy and used him as a shield against the second, letting him take a bullet in the chest, and then taking out the gunman while he was still blinking in surprise.
I snatched up the extra firepower, then headed inside. Only three men left within. I dealt with them, tossed them out, and pulled Trix in. "Go," I commanded, pointing her at the computer while I cleared off the table in the middle of the room with a few sweeps of my arm. Luckily, there was a terminal that was offset from the door so she couldn't be exposed. I flipped the table and pushed it up as a barricade against the open door. It would provide some cover, even if it wasn't bulletproof, and stop a direct charge.
Trix was cursing as she tapped away at the terminal, though it took a moment to register. "What?" I asked tersely.
"Shit, Heero, do you know how many guys you just took out?"
Oh, was that all? "I lost count," I lied blandly, continuing my survey of the room for anything that might be useful. My eyes landed on the papers that I had swept to the floor. With a glance over my table to make sure no one had come for us yet, I swooped them up and started looking through them. Pictures, lists, diagrams.
"Oh, come on!" Trix kicked the base of the computer in frustration. "Who the hell was smart enough to lock this system out?"
Their building engineer collaborator must have been here and taken precautions against our meddling, once we had announced our presence. "You're Tech Support. Deal with it."
"Oh, shut up," she muttered irritably, whacking away at the keyboard again.
I flipped through the papers, looking for something I recognized, something with a logo on it, anything that would tell me what sites the terrorists had been studying. Finally, I found one. "Trix, phone."
"Give me your phone," I repeated sharply, realizing that at some point I'd have to apologize for not being able to address her with anything other than a command tone.
She made a sound of impatience as she pulled the phone off her belt clip and tossed it at me. I heard footsteps, looked over our table, and shot the man coming our way. He swore quite vociferously and stumbled back out of the short hallway and returned to cover. Once the threat had been put off for a while again, I turned on the phone, then made a sound of disgust. No reception. Figured.
I looked around the room and found a landline. I pulled the phone off its cradle, dialed my number, and stretched its cord to the limit to get myself back into a good defensive position.
"Office of the Registrar. Looks like a men's room."
There was only the briefest of pauses before I heard him calling Chang to pass the information on. Someone poked his head around the corner in the interim and aimed a gun at me. I fired at him and caught him in the neck. Sure, Yuy, that was really non-lethal.
::Target area was limited.::
True. That's what he got for taking cover around a corner. At least it hadn't been right between the eyes. It'd take him a while to bleed out. In theory, his friends could save him.
Winner got back on the line. "Heero, where are you?"
"ZenNet building, South Fourteenth Street. Local terrorist HQ, it seems."
"I'll send some men out."
"Registrar may not be the only one." I continued going over the photos, studying them for clues, running the references through my internal database. "They have pictures. I see Records, but one more site as well."
"City Hall. Behind a statue. We got that one."
Ah. The architecture matched, though I hadn't actually seen much of City Hall. I'd take his word for it. "We'll keep going on our end, then."
"The hacking thing?"
Another bad guy attempted to creep out and take a shot at me while I was standing in the open. I planted a bullet in his shoulder and checked my ammo. I was still good for another three shots. "Yes. We're working on cutting off anything coming through here, but this won't be the only site. Prepare for damages."
"Acknowledged. The system disconnect is proceeding about as expected."
The possibility trees ran off wildly, considering how much time it could take to find an office administrator, explain the situation to him, and then have him contact a system engineer in order to remove them from the network. "Understood. I'll keep you apprised. Yuy out."
I hung up the phone and went over to Trix, spying over her shoulder as she continued whacking the keys on the keyboard angrily. "Status?"
"Oh, come on!" she pouted. "I know I'm not crazycool like the big kids, but it's like what I'm looking for doesn't even exist!"
I watched her as she fished through the system, looking for something to leverage, but another sound from the hallway leading to our temporary fort had me quick-shuffling back to my position at the door. Before I came to a complete stop, the would-be attacker turned tail and ran. I kept my sights squarely on the man's back as he fled, but didn't waste the bullet.
I maintained my vigil by the door for another four minutes, going through the possibilities with Trix in our quest to break this system before some other system was broken. At that point, the mumbling and mutters outside in the main room took on a new tone. I listened hard and focused until words emerged from the noise.
"Forget this. It's already set. Let's get out of here."
"Shit, you mean all this time we've been here? You're fucking insane, man! You trying to get us all killed?"
"But it's awfully convenient now, isn't it? Two birds, one stone. Let's get out of here."
That was unexpected. I let them move as they pleased, certain they wouldn't be trying to storm the office anytime soon. Instead, I looked around the room with a critical eye. If I were a terrorist, where would I hide it?
I tapped Trix on the shoulder. "Move."
She didn't glance up for her work. "What?"
"I need you to make a phone call for me."
"I'll take care of it. Move."
She started getting out of her seat, but tried to question me again as she looked toward the door. "But--"
"They won't attack. Move."
I waited until she was clear before taking over her seat and leaving her work behind. Once she got to the phone, I told her to hit the redial.
She did. "What's going on here?"
I finished locking the gates to the parking garage, then crawled underneath the computer console. "Tell him there's a bomb in the building."
"What?!" she half-shrieked. But then Winner answered the phone and she relayed my message shakily. "Um, hi? This is Trix. I'm with Heero right now. He says to tell you there's, um, a bomb here in the building, and holy crap, Heero, what are you doing!?"
I pushed some wires aside and read the timer. "Hm. Nine minutes, thirteen seconds."
"Nine minutes and--? Shit, Heero, you're Tech Support, not Bomb Squad!"
No, I was Gundam Pilot, and I ate bombs for breakfast. "Tell him I'm taking care of it."
"Heero--! Goddammit! He says he's taking care of it. Why the hell is there a bomb in this building?"
"To take care of evidence, I imagine." Hm, this wire connected to the timer, that wire went into the charge, and this wire connected to the power supply... "Tell him we'll unlock the gate to the parking garage when they get here. And they should be careful. There will probably be a few panicking terrorists down there."
She repeated my words into the phone, and then she processed them. "Wait, you locked the gate? That means--"
"Done." I pulled myself out from underneath the console and shook the bangs out of my eyes. "Phone."
She happily surrendered the device to me and scurried as far away from the console as she could get. "Winner, ETA?"
"Six minutes. Bomb?"
"Disarmed. Yuy out." I hung up the phone, estimated that I had another seventy-one seconds before the terrorists came back to try to unlock the gate controls, and used the time to get ready. I pulled off Trix's jacket and threw it in her direction. Then I began a weapons check.
I looked over to Trix. She stood hugging her jacket to her chest protectively. "What?" I asked. Bleeding? I did an internal diagnostic. That was usually the completion of that sentence. I didn't always notice minor wounds.
"Shit, you really are, aren't you? You, and Duo, and your friends. You're them. The Gundam pilots."
I didn't have time for this. I checked the safety and tucked a gun down the back of my pants. "You've known?"
"Sorta, kinda. I thought, but... Wow." She scrubbed her face with her hands. "Just... wow."
Hn. "Find a place to hide. Preferably under the console." I crossed the room, tapped a few commands, and then gestured her underneath. "It's going to get ugly in here. We'll have to let MinFa go. Use the chair for cover. When I tell you to, unlock and open the gates."
"Are you sure that bomb is disarmed?"
"Of course." If there were a safer place for it, I'd move it for her peace of mind, but I didn't want any accidents happening during the fight. Hopefully the terrorists wouldn't either, and would keep their bullets away from that direction. "If the bomb blows, being ten meters farther from it won't save you, anyway."
"Might as well die instantly? Yay. Can't we just open the gates now?" she asked, crawling reluctantly under the console.
"We can't let them get away."
I felt her glare on me through the cover of the chair. "Are you all like this?"
"Completely out of our minds? Yes." Though some of us more than others. I adjusted my grip on the gun in my hand as I lay flat against the wall next to the door. ::This is going to be a bit of a brawl.::
::We can hold them.::
::I never said we couldn't.::
We listened to shouts coming from down the hall. The men were giving themselves a pep talk, convincing themselves that they could take out two measly Preventers agents if they all just worked with each other. ::Eight seconds to start of operation.::
The countdown hit zero, and then we began. Three men charged in low to bull my table out of the way. I let them, then engaged them before they had recovered.
::On your four.::
I dropped low to sweep the legs out from beneath one man, aimed down the hall, and shot the man trying to put a bullet in me. He went down, and two more men shouting obscenities at me came rushing in over him. Elbow to the face, boot to the side of the head, two more fell to the ground.
::Man on your seven going to the console.::
I propelled a convenient victim into the enterprising young fellow that thought he could take advantage of my distraction.
::Chair from the corner.::
Sidestep, kick his back to add to his momentum, don't bother watching as he falls over the discarded table.
Drop to the ground, roll to the side. More swearing from my opponents, this time at their comrade. Where the hell did that come from? Some of the newcomers must have brought stronger weaponry with them. Deal with the man who jumped the same direction I did, slide into an open space, shoot target with SMG, shimmy away from wild fire as target goes down.
Lift one leg, catch him in the belly, throw him over my head.
::Going for the console again.::
My turn to tackle. His forehead into the floor. Dodge away from re-use of chair as a weapon.
::SMG on your one.::
Again? Someone picked up the first one, then. Bullet to his knee, take possession of his gun, watch the rest of the men back away slowly. Too bad they're between me and the console. Watch as they figure this out, but still wary to turn their backs to me. They haven't yet figured out that I'm not interested in killing them.
One notices Trix, decides it's worth the risk. I put a bullet in his ass.
::Out of ammo.::
I make a note of it, prepare to discard the weapon at an advantageous moment. The men are shouting something at me. I process their words.
Bomb. We're all going to die. We can all escape if I let them unlock the doors.
I smile grimly and let them continue to think that bomb is going to go off any second. "Why don't we all die together instead?"
They finally decide I'm completely crazy and mob me. Two men go for the console. I prepare to free my gun arm and stop them, but a gun is fired and it wasn't theirs. No one was hit, but they back off when they realize Trix still has the gun I gave her. She doesn't let any of their promises of safety get to her. Good girl. Of course, she knows that the bomb has already been disarmed.
I throw my empty gun at the back of a head, leaving her with just the one for a moment. "Trix, time!"
The man left with her turns his back to her in surprise and she hustles out from underneath the table, pushing the chair that had been her cover into him and making him stumble and she takes the opportunity to tap a few keys into the console. I get a free moment to haul him away from her as she scoots back under cover.
They may be screaming like little girls about their imminent doom, but a few determined ones seem interested in taking me down with them, at least. The rest flee like they think they can escape the blast radius while still inside the building. There's shouting and gunfire in the background and I put down one more, and right when I think that's the last one in the room, there's another presence right behind me and I turn and point my gun and stop short of putting a bullet in his gut.
Trix is screaming something. But more importantly than that, Winner is staring me down. I blink, and then something snaps. There's a roaring in my ears and my vision fades from gold and my perceptions start to sway drunkenly. I lower my arm, stumble back a few steps until I hit the wall and slide down it, gasping for a breath I can't quite get a grip on.
"Heero. Heero, look at me." I register a hand on my knee, but it doesn't mean anything. Another hand pulls the gun out of my lax grip, and then they're both cupping my face firmly and forcing my head up. "Heero, look at me. Focus. Are you with me? Focus."
I do as the insistent voice says, and gradually time stabilizes and I'm as close back to the limits of my own mind as I could be under the circumstances.
last modified : 5/5/2007 02:55:49 PST